Interview with Ashmi Desai

“In my experience, working in the field reinforced my passion for media studies and gave me a unique perspective in the classroom when I began my PhD program.”

First year PhD Student in Media Studies
University of Colorado, Boulder

Graduate School – Application Process

How did you select your graduate school and program?

I chose University of Colorado, Boulder for my PhD in media studies because I was interested in the research being conducted here. It was important to me to select a graduate school and a PhD program that would allow me to continue the area of research that I began with my masters thesis. To figure out if Boulder was the place for me, I looked at the research focus of some of the professors. I found 3 who specialize in fields that interest me. One of them specialized in media law and freedom of expression, which complemented my own research interests.

What did you do to prepare yourself for graduate school?

To prepare myself for graduate school, I familiarized myself with the application process, consulted the graduate school coordinator, and talked it over with professors and friends.

While assembling my applications, I started working on my research sample early enough to avoid the many problems that can crop up at the last minute. I went through around 10 or 12 drafts before I reached the final version. I also consulted with my peers to get feedback on my work. I would advise other students to start working on research samples well in advance, at least 3 months before the final deadline, and get feedback from at least 5 people.

I also sought help from my graduate coordinator to help me negotiate the arduous application process. For instance, after the application deadline, I found a repetition error in the research sample I had submitted, and my graduate coordinator allowed me to submit a revised version. Having the graduate coordinator as a resource was invaluable.

When it came to preparing for the PhD program itself, nothing has been more helpful than my hands-on experience. During my masters program, I participated in 3 internships. One was at a newspaper, 1 was at a film production company and another was at a non-governmental agency. In addition, I spent 5 years working for a different newspaper after I finished my masters degree. This gave me exposure to real issues and first-hand knowledge of different forms of media. I have found that my experience in the field prepared me for my PhD program by giving me a different perspective on issues in the media.

Did your application requirements include standardized test scores?

Yes, I had to submit GRE scores and also scores for the TOEFL, which is a test that measures English language proficiency for non-native English speakers. To prepare for these tests, I began studying the practice materials 1 month in advance. Because the verbal section of the GRE is quite challenging, I used the practice materials for GRE to also prepare for the TOEFL. The day before each test, I took the entire day off work for last-minute preparation and to familiarize myself with the test formats.

What kind of information did you include in your personal statement?

I referred many samples of personal statements online and struggled to determine what information to include in my personal statement. Finally, I compiled an autobiographical statement about my academic journey and research interests. I also carefully tied each experience to my goals and my desire to study for PhD.

Do you have any other tips for a student who is considering applying to graduate school in media studies?

If you are considering a PhD program in media studies, my biggest piece of advice is to equip yourself with as much information as possible. Research the program and the school, especially their funding ability. Interact with the professors and find out if their areas of research complement your interests. Visit the school if possible. Ask a lot of questions from senior students and advisors. You should have a clear idea about what to expect from your chosen graduate study program.

Graduate School – The Program

How long is your program and how is the curriculum distributed?

It is a four-year funded PhD program. The curriculum is split between formal classes and dissertation work. For the first 1 and a half years, I will complete my coursework. There are four compulsory classes during the first year, but I will choose the rest of my courses based on my own research interests and eventual dissertation focus. During the second half of the program, I will mainly conduct dissertation research.

What role does your advisor play in your education?

In my PhD program at University of Colorado, Boulder, students choose their own advisor, but because I am still in my first year, I haven’t chosen one yet.

How does a doctoral program differ from graduate study at the masters level?

The most fundamental difference between studying for a masters degree and studying for a PhD is that, in a doctoral program, I am unofficially treated like a colleague by the faculty. We sit across a conference table during class and have discussions on theory. As a PhD student, I have the freedom to disagree with my professors and contribute my own thoughts.

Graduate School – Paying for It

How are you funding your education?

At University of Colorado, Boulder, all students accepted into the media studies PhD program receive a full tuition waiver and assistantship. In my assistantship for this semester, I am conducting research for a professor for about 20 hours each week in exchange for my tuition waiver. After the first year, I will undergo an annual performance review, and funding will be renewed based on my satisfactory performance in the program. Although funding is technically not guaranteed, it is highly unusual for funding to be discontinued.

Graduate School – Living Life

What are the time commitments for a PhD in media studies?

Studying for a PhD in media studies is a serious time commitment. I attend classes 2 days a week, but they require a lot of preparation. When I am not in class, I have hours of reading material to get through. Each reading takes at least 3 hours, as I research the author, make a gist of the article and put forth my opinions, questions and reflections. In addition to finding time for schoolwork, I must manage my time to incorporate my assistantship into my schedule. I meet with my assistantship professor on a weekly basis. We discuss the research I have done and determine what direction I should take. Then she assigns me work for the week, which comes to about 20 hours.

How has graduate school affected your personal life?

So far, I don’t have many difficulties balancing my personal life with graduate school. But I am only in my first semester, and I have heard that it can get intense, particularly when my next semester starts. Time management will be key.

Graduate School – After Graduation

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I see a lot of opportunities for myself in the future. In general, I plan to start a career that incorporates teaching, filmmaking and something associated with the press. I also want to write and continue researching. There are a lot of options for someone with a PhD in media studies, and as my PhD program advances I will set more in-depth goals for myself.

Graduate School – Advice

What insights can you offer a student who is interested in pursuing a PhD in media studies?

If you are interested in pursuing a PhD in media studies, I would advise you to make sure that you are truly interested in the subject. I also encourage you to gain some practical experience in your area of interest first before applying to a program. Simply because you have an undergraduate or masters background in the field does not automatically mean that a PhD in media studies is the next step. I suggest taking a few years off to work in media in some capacity, particularly if you are unsure. Firsthand exposure will help you decide if you have a genuine interest in a particular field. It could also help you discover interests you did not realize earlier. In my experience, working in the field reinforced my passion for media studies and gave me a unique perspective in the classroom when I began my PhD program.

Once you have determined that media studies is the right choice, I suggest that you do a lot of research to find the best possible program for you. Compare and contrast different schools and their curriculum, not just within the US but also in other countries. Look into everything from weather to food. After all, you will be spending a significant part of your life in that location. You should understand that it might take some effort to find the right PhD program to inspire you. Enrolling a PhD student is a big investment for the university. The university will also be counting on you. If you pick a media studies PhD program suited to your aptitude, where you have a professor to guide you in your preferred research area, you will be that much more successful in your studies.

Finally, keep in mind that the best job prospects for someone with a PhD in media studies might not be the most obvious careers. There may be job opportunities at organizations like the United Nations or positions in teaching. People may say that with a PhD you are overqualified, but I think you just need to find the right job for you.

Shannon Corkery


University of Arizona


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Wonda Baugh


Bowling Green State University


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Ken Marchman


University of Florida


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