|Written by Tomaselli, Keyan|
The Centre for Communication, Media and Society (CCMS)
Howard College Campus, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban
Thank you for your inquiry regarding completing a PhD at CCMS. In order to streamline our responses to increasing inquiries about the PhD degree we have drawn up a basic set of Guidelines which potential applicants should ask themselves before applying to our Programme. Applicants should then be in a good position to ascertain whether our Programme is, in fact, an appropriate place in which to study, in terms of the applicant’s own needs and objectives on the one hand and in terms of what we offer on the other.
CCMS gets many inquiries and submissions for the PhD degree, and processing such approaches takes considerable time. The logistics of PhD study are very complex for both students and for the supervising programme. All this requires considerable advance planning where acceptances are offered.
In the normal course of events we accept few applicants, as we need to be convinced that the applicant is well focused, has the financial means, and understands what is required by this very demanding degree. Globally, many PhD students start with the best of intentions, but few actually complete their theses. Therefore, we have put together some basic questions which we ask inquirers to think about seriously before applying. Following consideration of the Guidelines below, and familiarisation of CCMS’s areas of expertise, research themes and where the applicant’s proposed project fits into these, the procedure for considering potential applicants and assessing their suitability for acceptance to the Programme starts from receipt of the information requested at the end of this document. PhD applicants need to contact CCMS at least six months prior to the new academic year as acceptance for study at this senior level and must take into account numerous factors stated below. We also establish a dialogue during this period with potential candidates to ensure that they start studying with immediate effect if they are accepted.
a) Why does the applicant want to study for a PhD? The career paths available to PhD graduates are actually quite limited, and are among the most competitive in the world. One's future will be largely limited to the available spaces for academics, or in the research environments of industry or state sectors. It has become a global phenomenon that PhD graduates have spent their entire working lives as so-called `adjunct professors', underpaid part-time teaching posts without health or retirement benefits. Candidates must therefore be fully prepared to begin at the margins of this cut-throat environment on graduation; it actually helps to embark on a PhD after one has secured employment in an academic post.
PhD study is an extremely intensive education for a research career. The appellation `Dr’ recognises the extraordinary demands of the degree and rewards success. In environments like the USA, obtaining a PhD is often the basic required qualification for entry into an academic and lecturing career.
b) Is the candidate aware of the significant differences between an MA and a PhD? Contemporary MA structures differ little from advanced undergraduate study. The research required for an MA dissertation is merely a demonstration that candidates have absorbed - and mastered - a given curriculum. At PhD level, one must in effect generate an academically adequate curriculum, follow it independently, and only then generate and carry out a relevant research project in the task of building new theory. The PhD is not simply an extension of the Master’s degree. It is a theoretically-based project of an entirely different order of magnitude.
c) Are applicants aware of the stresses that will occur in doing a PhD? Applicants need to have sufficient time, funding, energy, institutional and family support to undertake the PhD. Few applicants appreciate the reality of the extraordinary demands entailed in embarking on their PhD study and research. Aside from the intensive demands on both the supervisor and the student, the work required for a PhD cuts into every other facet of family and social life.
d) Does the applicant appreciate that a PhD is as much a socialisation process as it is about doing research? This is one of the reasons for CCMS organising its work in terms of themed projects and team research, based in the Programme itself. This is why we prefer full-time students who participate in, and actively contribute to, the regular Writing and Proposal Seminars. Peer-support, collective debate and engagement are all part of team-work.
e) As a socialisation process, the PhD demands immense amounts of reading, deep immersion into large bodies of literature, both historical and contemporary, and intense debate on these. Often, potential applicants are unaware of massive recent conceptual advances in the literature, especially if they are older graduates who have been working outside the academy. Considerable time and effort will need to be expended in familiarising new candidates with these new bodies of literature.
f) What is the class of pass earned by the applicant in his/her MA? The minimum threshold is a good upper second from a university and department of international standing. A publication record in peer-reviewed journals is an added recommendation.
g) Does the applicant have sufficient financial resources to undertake and complete his/her studies? Costs which the student will need to budget for include: fees, residence, study, books, photostating, and related research dissertation expenses etc. (International students will need to cover the costs of medical aid, study visas, and UKZN international levies.) Few applicants factor in research expenses when deciding to pursue a PhD. Depending on the topic and the location of field work, these expenses can be considerable. CCMS and the University will require documentary evidence that applicants will be able to ensure sufficient financial support during their period of their canditature. Applicants will be sent an estimation of expenses when their formal applications are received.
h) All applications are considered by a staff committee, the Head of School, and the Office of the Deputy Dean, Research. This is a complex administrative and selection process involving a number of UKZN offices. It is crucial therefore that all information, certified certificates, university transcripts, CV and other information requested are correct and provided on time.
IF THE APPLICANT CAN SHOW EVIDENCE OF THE ABOVE, THEN S/HE NEEDS TO ASK:
a) Is CCMS the appropriate place for study? (Browse our website: (http://ccms.ukzn.ac.za/) for clarification:
i) CCMS research is based on some quite specific logical and epistemological orientations. Do applicants understand the full significance of these?
ii) When you complete a PhD, you join an academic community. However, even when you begin a course of doctoral study, you do so as a member of that community. It is therefore important that you belong to a department where the type of academic discourse you want to research actually exists. Another way of putting this is to ask, are you a peer to your adopted academic community? Peers share a number of things in common. Chief among these is that they all participate in common theoretical and methodological discourses, or a fraction of those discourses. For example: `Media', `communication' and `cultural studies' have certain very specific logical implications for us, which may or may not apply in other contexts, other departments and other universities. Are applicants aware of these differences, and how they might impact their own objective
iii) Is the applicant familiar with CCMS's work, its theoretical emphases, and its research orientations?
iv) While professional experience is always an added value, it is not always a reliable indicator of ability to handle dense and deep sets of philosophical concepts, theories and methods. The `philosophy' part of a PhD may draw on aspects of one's media or cultural experience. But preparing and completing a PhD requires finding highly abstract conceptual connections in, and gaining knowledge of, the field as a whole. This is a task which requires much more than `making media', claiming an essentialistic knowledge of `culture', or simply summarising the existing literature.
v) PhD candidates need to choose the programme best suited to their objectives, rather than trying to push a conveniently located programme into topics in which its professors have little knowledge, expertise or interest.
vi) Does the proposed research topic develop on the applicant’s previous studies, research and expertise. CCMS receives many research proposals from applicants which have no obvious reference to their previous experience and studies. A PhD cannot be a shot in the dark, or an interesting idea; a PhD consolidates prior learning through a topic related to previous conceptual experience and work.
b) Is the applicant able to study full-time? The projects division of CCMS does not accept distance or part-time students. The following prerequisites apply to all those wanting to enrol as PhD candidates:
i) Unless they already have an MA in the area of their work from CCMS, for the first year at least, all PhD candidates are required to study full-time for the first 18 months at least (or a shorter period to be agreed upon, which includes auditing the relevant modules and the writing of a research proposal accepted by the Higher Degree and Research Committee. This shorter period would normally run from Feb – June, depending on which modules are audited as some are offered only in the second semester). They are required to audit relevant graduate modules in order to prepare themselves conceptually for their thesis research. Thereafter, we expect students to spend time regularly in Durban working with their supervisors and staff/student research teams. `Audit' means reading, participation, preparing and presenting particular seminars. Applicants who fail to obtain acceptance for their research proposals within nine months of registration will be deregistered.
ii) Candidates are required to participate in the Writing and Proposal Seminars held weekly during the academic year .
iii) PhD's who are accepted but who then find that they cannot complete the first 18 months full-time will be asked to de-register.
iv) All new students applying for re-instatement after a period of absence will be required to re-apply to the School in terms of the requirements of the newly established graduate division. All applicants will be required to furnish documentary proof to CCMS that they have sufficient funds to undertake the degree, and that they have sufficient funds to spend the first 18 months of their registration in Durban. They will also need to provide assurance and evidence of financial resources that they will spend the necessary time in Durban regularly working with their supervisors after the 18 month full-time requirement.
Depending on the thesis topic, the costs can be quite high. Students must assume that research costs are for their own account. Research costs incurred by students are not covered by fees or other levies, though on occasion a themed research area might have some funds attached to it. Students need to budget for books, photostats, interlibrary loans, module readers, transport, food, accommodation and other requirements. International Students are required to pay specific levies.
What is included in the fees is access to the University LAN (with a dedicated postgraduate computer facility) and the Internet, the World Wide Web, the Library and other student service divisions (including psychological and career counselling, a University clinic which offers basic health care, an HIV/AIDS treatment programme, law clinic, intercampus shuttle service, security and escort security. English Second language students may need to also budget for professional copyediting assistance.) CCMS needs to be assured that candidates have appropriate levels of funding support in place.
v) Newly accepted PhD students must start at the beginning of the academic year (i.e. February).
c) Does the applicant understand social research methodology? Applicants must be able to demonstrate a substantial awareness of how they are able to apply theory in research practice. This may involve a record of previous publication, and our perusal of what other graduate level courses have been completed with suitable grades. Did the applicant's MA dissertation prepare him/her for continuing research?
d) Does the applicant understand that research involves `finding out’, rather than proving what is already `known’?
e) Does the proposed PhD topic fit into one of CCMS's integrated research themes? Will the topic add capacity and depth to this already ongoing institutionally-based team research? This does not mean that all students are required to work in teams, but that their research topic is embedded in a body of knowledge from which it can build. If it does not, then we are unlikely to accept the applicant, no matter the excellence of this/her credentials. Please read the CCMS website for further information on our research directions, expertise and research themes (go to "Courses", click, and scroll down the menu to "Research Themes"). For logistical and other reasons CCMS is unable to consider unrelated or individualistic topics which have no direct relation to an already wide and flexible, but thematically and theoretically integrated, variety of preferred research themes. This stipulation relates to the availability of suitable supervisory expertise, the nature of team research, and encouragement of peer support.
f) Is the candidate highly competent in writing in English? Sophisticated writing skills are a prerequisite. Candidates admitted to status who subsequently reveal poor writing skills will be deregistered.
g) Does the applicant have sufficient funding support to be able to complete the PhD? Many candidates drop out because they are unable to finance their studies, and/or because they have other pressing financial responsibilities which keep interrupting their research. CCMS needs to be assured that candidates have appropriate levels of funding support in place for the duration of the degree, between 3 and 5 years, depending on the speed and efficiency at which the student works.
h) Where the applicant is a lecturer at another university or tertiary institution, does s/he have the support of that university? That is, will the applicant's home institution provide the candidate sufficient study leave and other resources to get the PhD done? Candidates are required to be based in Durban for a minimum of 18 months, not including their field work. If the answers to all of the above are positive, then you might consider applying to CCMS (see pg5 of the CCMS Prospectus).
What we require from such applicants is the following:
a) A detailed CV highlighting your research (and professional) experience.
b) A detailed two to three page motivation arguing why you want to study at CCMS, and how your proposed project will add value and capacity to the Programme's ongoing teaching and research work.
c) Three academic references to support your candidacy.
d) A set of certified transcripts of your previous degrees.
e) A copy of your MA dissertation and academic and research publications, if any.
f) Any other documentation which will support your application.
Questions which CCMS will ask itself on receipt of a likely candidate:
a) Does CCMS and the Faculty have a suitable supervisor with the necessary disciplinary and methodological expertise available to take on supervision?
b) Does CCMS and the Faculty have supervisory capacity to take on the applicant in light of current staff workloads, PhD and MA graduation throughput and supervisory allocations? Accepting a new PhD student portends an intense and long-term relationship between the students and CCMS, and the complex logistics all have to be assessed and put into place before any decisions can be made.
c) Supervisor: student ratios will be taken into account when considering applications
d) Throughput of currently registered MA and PhD students determines our capacity to take on new registrations. That’s why a lead time into the PhD of at least 6 months, if not longer, is stipulated.
e) Whether the application will fit into one of CCMS's current research themes. Your application will be assessed by a committee comprising all CCMS (HC) professors and lecturers, post-doctoral fellows located in CCMS, and the Head of School, amongst other contributors. External advisors will be approached when necessary. This is a process which will take a minimum of 8 weeks.
The UKZN academic year starts in February, and ends on 15 December. The PhD will normally take about 3-5 years. Students who fail to deliver within this or other approved period will be asked to deregister.
Proposal writing seminars occur mainly in the first semester (Feb-June).
CCMS students, where possible, work in teams on themed projects, which embed them in structures of peer support, capacity-building, and collaborative work.
If you are accepted by CCMS, we wish you the best of luck. May your final choice be guided by thoughtful consideration of the next three to five years of your life.
Professor KG Tomaselli
Research Director and Academic Coordinator
Application forms may be obtained from:
Ms Ausie Luthuli (' );
University of KwaZulu-Natal