Roadmap for the Communication Ph.D. Program
The UIC doctorate in Communication allows you great flexibility but requires that you formulate a program of study to submit for approval. The Graduate Program Committee (GPC) reviews proposals once each semester. You can make your initial submission during any semester, and earlier is better to get input on your plan. Submissions after the third semester of study will likely extend the time you need to complete your program.
The Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) advises all students prior to their initial enrollment and during the first semester. As a new student, you should review of your master's training as soon as possible, comparing syllabi from your coursework with UIC M.A. courses. The goal is for all students to reach the baseline of the UIC courses as part of the 32 credits acceptable in preparation for doctoral work. Internships, courses in professional practice, and other training not allowed in the UIC M.A. program create gaps you will need to fill in your prior education.
Some master's programs provide good training in quantitative reasoning (the equivalent of Comm 501), but few M.A. programs offer the coverage and rigor comparable to the philosophies of social research (in Comm 500), history of and movements in media studies (in Comm 502), or depth and range of cultural approaches (in Comm 503), and so most doctoral students rely on the UIC M.A. courses to supplement to their master's degree.
During the first semester, students who have had master's training equivalent to the UIC M.A. program gather syllabi from relevant coursework for review. The DGS lets you know whether one or more of your master's courses can replace any of the baseline UIC master's courses. Students whose master's degree is not in communication research or who have other gaps in their prior graduate work (as identified in advisement with the DGS) take the baseline UIC courses either prior to or concurrently with completing the doctoral program.
During the second semester, you select an advisor, who will help you devise a tentative program of study to submit to the GPC. The advisor may also chair your committee.
In the twelfth week of the second (or the third) semester, students submit to the DGS a preliminary proposal for approval of a Program of Study. In it you outline the courses planned and give a rationale to justify your program, along with naming an advisor, all of which you design to lead to the specialist knowledge and methods necessary for the dissertation.The Program Proposal form is available for download.
The GPC reviews the program and recommends any adjustments. Once approved, the program becomes your guide for moving through coursework, and the advisor and DGS may jointly allow adjustments needed to adapt to course scheduling. If you need to change directions in coursework or your dissertation interests change markedly, you may revise and resubmit the program, working with your advisor so that your plan reflects your expectations for future work in the program and beyond.
The Program of Study encompasses approved master's courses (32 credit hours), Ph.D. coursework (at least 40 credit hours, 32 at 500 level), and the dissertation (at least 20 but usually more, with up to 24 credit hours applying to the degree), for a total of 96 approved credit hours beyond the bachelor's degree.
|Master's Base: 500 and 501, 502 or 503* (±12)|
|Ph.D. Core: 502 or 503, 504, 508, 580||<=||16|
|Specialization. Courses in an identified specialty||>=||20|
|Methods. Courses in methods germane to the specialty**||>=||8|
|Dissertation. Minimum, maximum of 24 can apply||>=||20|
*Completed as part of the master's degree, **An 8-credit norm, but more for some types of research
Because most master's degree programs in communication have an emphasis either on media studies or on the speech, rhetoric, and culture side of communication, the UIC doctorate incorporates the Comm 502 and Comm 503 seminars into the degree. The expectation is that you will take one with the Master's base and the other with the Ph.D. core.
During the last year of coursework, students submit a final Program Proposal for approval, incorporating any changes necessary since the approved preliminary submission. The terms of the original (if unchanged) or revised (if changed) program must be complete before a student can take the preliminary examination.
Funding and support
Some students support themselves, but the department may commit to funding others as part of the admissions process. The funds may be in the form of a teaching or research assistantship or a fellowship (from most to least common). Department funding is for the period of coursework only, usually three years, subject to continual review. Contract renewals are semester to semester, based on student performance not only in coursework but also in assigned duties. Some students enter without funding but then acquire support later. As a graduate student, you are eligible to seek and accept an assistantship in any UIC department or office.
Students should apply for grants and fellowships to support the dissertation year(s) of study. Plan well ahead of time. Application deadlines tend to cluster in the fall or early in the calendar year for support available the following academic year. Some grants require that you pass preliminary examinations before submitting an application. Consult with your advisor about grant opportunities. To apply, start from the draft of your dissertation proposal. See the Graduate College Funding Your Education page.
All doctoral students hoping to enter the professoriate should make sure their CV includes funded research. Funding is a process of juggling current commitments with future plans, and the complex timing of coursework, preliminary exams, and dissertation research are good experience for those entering industry as well.
Most communication researchers require an up-to-date certificate of training in the ethical and practical issues of doing research involving other humans. Certificates expire after two years and are necessary throughout the process of doing research, including the analysis of results.
If your dissertation employs methods that involve human participants, the deadline for completing your training is before your proposal goes before your committee, usually at the oral stage of the preliminary exams. Information, forms, and access to training are all available through the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.
The preliminary examinations, or prelims, certify the student’s preparation to work independently as a scholar (that is, to write a dissertation and enter the job market). The prelims show you understand the discipline, have taken a stand within your specialty, and have identified what original contribution you can make (through, for example, the dissertation proposal). Like other parts of the roadmap, the prelims are flexible but depend on the responsibility of the student.You must take prelims no later than three calendar years after admission or upon completion of 40 semester hours of doctoral coursework (whichever comes first), once you’ve completed your proposed program of coursework (and the DGS has, along with the Graduate Program Committee, concurred and approved any modifications). In the regular or summer term when you take prelims, the department requires that you register for credit, either for Independent Research or for Dissertation if you will defend your proposal at the prelims meeting.
The Graduate College lists the rules for forming a committee, for timing each step of the prelims, and for registering in the Preliminary Examination Policies and Procedures. Follow them closely.
The Committee. Start forming a committee as you begin the last year of coursework. Propose members to your advisor based on your specialty, methods, and research topic or interests. Committee members should know your work well, usually because you did coursework with them. Most prelim committee members go on to serve on your dissertation committee (but check the rules for the two committees at the Graduate College Exams & Defense page). Choose the committee to cover broad fields as well as your specialty.
To approach a potential committee member, first set up a meeting. Be prepared to describe your research project (and, if the member is outside the department, to explain the prelim procedure). Discuss the time frame for the prelims as well as what about your project the examiner will ask you.
When you have agreement from all the members, complete a Committee Recommendation Form. The department will submit the form with DGS approval, and the Dean of the Graduate College, if all is in order, issues a letter of appointment to each committee member. Taking prelims is a process involving two phases, one written and the other oral.
Preparing. Discuss your prelim question and exam format with each examiner. Students and examiners jointly fashion the areas for questions to seek good coverage (in anticipation of the dissertation, see below) and to avoid overlapping questions. The consultation phase avoids surprise questions and assures that exam questions will be meaningful. Each committee member will negotiate either a reading list or one or more questions, or both, and may disclose any specific question for you to answer in writing. Some examiners ask the student to propose a reading list and/or question suitable as preparation for the dissertation, and then reshape it. Outside examiners may honor department custom or follow the pattern from their home units at their discretion.
After receiving a notice of appointment and completing the preparations with you, each committee member will submit your agreed upon question in writing to your advisor, who will review them and resolve any overlap and conflict with the affected examiner before forwarding them to the department. The staff will then have each question on hand for you when you are ready to write an exam, based on your plan for timing the questions.
You take written questions one at a time, spending, for instance, a few weeks preparing for each question to fit them all into one semester. Schedule each question a few days in advance for delivery during regular business hours. Scheduling arrangements are made in consultation with your advisor.
Scheduling. Answer each examiner’s question as a take-home over a 24-hour period. The one-day format allows time to reflect and requires an answer of about twenty standard manuscript pages.
When you have finished your answer, you submit it to your advisor. Grading follows the Graduate College rules (see above). You must abide by the committee consensus on how much time can elapse between the appointment of a prelim committee and the oral examination (usually no more than six months). Schedule the oral defense for a minimum of two hours, within a few weeks of completing the written questions so that you have time to prepare your dissertation proposal for defense at the same time.
Arranging a meeting with all five members is difficult and requires planning well in advance. As soon as you have developed your plan for writing the prelims and preparing your proposal, begin by looking up each committee member’s teaching schedule and target a potential few weeks. Query committee members about their travel plans, check with the department about upcoming events, and then propose a handful of time slots that seem likely.
Orals. For the oral, your written prelim answers open up areas for questioning. Some examiners focus specifically on your answer to their own question. Others probe to find the limits of your knowledge, asking questions until you answer, “I don’t know,” which simply ends that line of questioning. (NB: “I don't know” is an acceptable truthful answer, and it is in your best interest not to fake knowledge of an area of inquiry.) Examiners look for and ask about how your answers interrelate. The exam is a conversation among scholars, not a test of your ability to give an expected reply, and you should aim to express your own thinking clearly and thoughtfully, showing where you stand on the main issues the prelim questions raise.
Dissertation Proposal.The department strongly recommends that at the same meeting you present the dissertation proposal, which you have shaped while writing the prelims. During prelims, continue discussing the proposal with your advisor and share draft sections with committee members. After each prelim, incorporate materials you answer as appropriate into the proposal draft, a process that helps you prepare for the prelim orals and moves the proposal forward. Once your advisor reads and approves your final draft, send it to the committee about two weeks before the defense. The members then read all your prelim questions and your updated thoughts incorporated into the proposal, and the orals cover first the prelim answers and then the proposal.
Dissertation proposals include the following:
- a review of the literature where the dissertation will make a contribution,
- a description of the research you have planned and its methods,
- a chapter outline of the entire dissertation,
- reasons why your contribution will matter, and
- an extensive bibliography.
If you have arranged your prelim questions well, the written prelim answers can accomplish much of the work behind the dissertation proposal. You may find it possible to use sections of prelim answers in the proposal after revising them with more time than the exam process allows. The proposal may in turn become fodder for the first chapter of the finished dissertation.
Orals Procedures. Questioning during prelims about your proposal usually focuses on why your research matters and on method(s). Examiners may argue how you conceive of or approach the project or inquire into practical details of the research. Their purpose is to make sure that you can do the proposed dissertation and that it will be worth doing. The prelims discussion often becomes a kind of coaching.
After the discussion, the committee deliberates in private before calling you back to reveal the result. Although individual members may vote either “pass” or “fail,” department committees generally aim for consensus. In grading, committees have wide latitude. The outcome may be to defer a decision until you do additional work, usually to the satisfaction of your advisor or another member with reservations. Or the outcome may be a provisional passing grade, with conditions specified to the Graduate College. In either case you will receive instructions in writing specifying what work to do or conditions to complete. Another oral exam takes place only rarely.
Once you clear up the added work or other conditions, the department submits your Examination Report.
After passing the preliminary exam (a good time to pause, reflect, and celebrate), you become an official Ph.D. Candidate—also sometimes called ABD (for all but dissertation)—and can embark on your dissertation research. The prelim committee officially dissolves, but you will likely continue with much the same membership for your dissertation committee. Work closely with them and with your advisor. Each student, each dissertation, is unique. There are no prescribed or predictable timelines. Besides completing the required hours of Comm 599, follow the Graduate College rules for continuous registration while writing the dissertation. The department requires you to register for dissertation credit the term you defend it.
You can schedule the dissertation defense as early as one year after passing prelims. The Graduate College lists the rules for forming the committee, timing and announcing the defense, registering, and grading in the Doctoral Dissertation Defense page. Follow them closely.
Some elements of the rules trip students up. You must complete a new Committee Recommendation Form (click to download .pdf) to submit four weeks in advance. The department requires you to provide committee members the final draft between two and four weeks before the scheduled defense. A public announcement of the defense must go out at least one week in advance.
Your advisor will guide you about when the dissertation is ready to send to the committee. Before announcing the defense, the committee decides that the draft in hand is ready to be defended. The candidate's advisor as committee chair moderates the defense. The candidate presents the dissertation for about half an hour, and then the chair moderates questions from the audience. The public portion of the defense then ends with a short break to allow the audience to leave. In closed session, the chair moderates questions from the committee. The candidate leaves while the committee deliberates and then returns for the decision and any final discussion. A typical defense lasts about two hours.
The defense is a meeting much like prelims, one of the rare moments in a scholar’s life when a panel of the best-qualified experts will read your work closely and discuss it with you in depth. Although some universities or departments have adversarial defenses, the department meetings are generally collegial and collaborative. The members will offer you advice and suggestions ranging from extensive or minor revisions of the dissertation to recommendations for how to convert the project into journal articles or a book.
Upon approval of the dissertation, make sure your final draft follows formatting guidelines. The Graduate College dissertation inspectors are thorough. Follow dissertation format guidelines to the letter: Thesis Manual.
The deadline to submit a dissertation to the Graduate College is always well in advance, by mid-March for May graduation and by early July for August graduation. And you must apply for graduation. See the Graduate College Graduation page for details.
If you intend to publish your dissertation, consider William Germano's well-received book, From Dissertation to Book, for sensible advice. It may not be a bad idea to read the book before you begin to write your dissertation.