Sara Doan: What I Wish I’d Known: Transitioning from an MA in RCPC to a PhD Program at Another University

As I entered my second year as an Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Communication (RCPC), I knew that I wanted to continue pursuing the love of teaching, research, and coursework that the RCPC program had nurtured in me. My first big decision was deciding whether to pursue a PhD. Many conversations between myself, faculty, older graduate students, and my friends surrounded this choice. But one conversation in particular crystallized that decision for me. It was between me and a seasoned graduate student at a department-sponsored happy hour in the fall of my second year. For the sake of anonymity, I will refer to this person as “W.”

W and I were chatting. “What are you planning to do next year?” W asked.

I answered, “I was thinking about going on for my PhD and eventually teaching.”

“That’s a big commitment. How do you feel about grading papers?”

“It’s not my favorite, but I don’t mind it as long as I can sit down and get it done.” I shrugged. “I also feel like I’m not done yet. There’s still so much that I want to learn by taking coursework and doing my own research projects. I’m not ready to just be finished.”

“Those are some of the best reasons to pursue a PhD.” The graduate student wished me luck and the conversation ended.

The PhD Application Process

After realizing how much I really wanted to go on, I started narrowing down schools that had robust programs in the Midwest in Rhetoric and Composition or in Professional Communication. I had still been debating about the types of research and teaching that I wanted to pursue. I realized that up to that point, most of my work had been drawn from research centered in the technical communication canon. This type of personal reflection was very helpful for understanding what type of school would fit me. As I went through the process of figuring out what and where I wanted to study, I wish that I could have had more concrete advice about how to figure out my personal “brand” as a PhD student, teacher, and graduate researcher.

Here are a few things that I discovered during my process of figuring out what I wanted from a PhD program:

  • Use past projects to plan future ones. What work can you catapult into future projects?
    • Look at your term papers and/or other large projects that you’ve completed during your coursework, internships, freelancing, etc.
    • What sources have you really connected with? Are there certain authors, methodologies, or theories that you’ve used more than once?
    • What projects—or aspects of projects—have you enjoyed most? How can this set the stage for your work as a PhD student?
  • Write this stuff down. It will help you to craft your personal statement for your applications.

As I went through this process, I realized that I really enjoyed writing about technical communication and the rhetoric of science and technology. Based on my work, I was also more comfortable using qualitative research methods than I was using quantitative ones. I also realized that I was happiest when I could connect my research work to real-world problems or issues, like usability in Moodle or studying how my students structured sentences. Having this baseline helped me to market myself to particular programs and to gauge how I would “fit.”

Campus Visits

When I was considering University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for my PhD, I did a day-long campus visit two months before my application was due. One of their MA students gave me a tour of campus, and then I chatted with two different faculty members. I also ate lunch with several of their graduate students. The campus visit was helpful because I could point to specific details about resources and campus culture that came up when I was on-site. This tip may not be realistic if you’re not within driving distance of a program and/or don’t have the time to arrange a trip. That said, being able to visit campus and meet my potential future colleagues allowed me to understand what was important to that program and also to blip on the program and faculty’s radar in advance.

Crafting Applications

For my PhD applications, I finished the first draft of my documents about a month in advance. That gave me the rest of that month to revise and gather feedback from my colleagues and faculty. I ultimately applied to three programs all within a central geographic region. Your mileage will vary in terms of your application material timeline, especially if you decide to apply to more programs. I did some things pretty well and wished that I had done a few things differently during that process.

What I did Well:

  • Giving application materials time to percolate. I kept going back and reworking parts that I wasn’t satisfied with.
  • Getting lots of eyes on my drafts. At least 10 people gave me feedback on my drafts, and it was extremely helpful to have so many opinions and comments. I even brought them to a department-sponsored happy hour to pick people’s brains.
  • Finding PhD student role models and asking them about how they chose their programs.
  • Featuring my technical communication skills on my application materials—using subtitles, inserting lines, etc. For my UW-Milwaukee application, I included a paper I had written about data visualization (with visuals!) and the portfolio of technical materials that I had created during my summer internship.  

What I wish I’d done better:

  • Understanding that different schools have different access to technology and software. UW-Milwaukee doesn’t have computer labs for the English Department to teach in on a regular basis. I really miss how integral technology was to ISUComm, especially because many of my current students don’t have regular access to their own laptops.
  • Understanding how the different disciplines within the English department fit together. The composition of a department can deeply affect daily life in ways that I didn’t realize during my time at ISU. During my time at ISU, I enjoyed numerous professional development opportunities, including Phorum, the student chapter of STC, research colloquia, and job talks. A different department composition may not afford the same type of professional development opportunities within the department.
  • Paying more attention to building long-term research projects. The second year of my MA was incredibly productive for research and teaching, but this momentum was difficult to maintain while also learning a new environment. Have a plan in place to continue projects and research that you want to be doing. Assimilating to the ways of a new department can be incredibly time-consuming. If you want to conduct independent research, be very intentional about carving out time for it.

Moving to a different program for a PhD can be challenging and rewarding in equal measure. During my first year at UW-Milwaukee, I found myself questioning the methods that I used to teach, the types of texts that I was referencing, and the ways in which I was writing. Switching programs has made me very intentional about what kind of teacher, student, and researcher I want to be. While I miss the people and places of Iowa State University, I treasure what I gained from attending the RCPC program and carry its lessons with me as I pursue new opportunities.


Sara Doan is a PhD student in Professional Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Sara’s research interests include learning management systems, technical communication pedagogy, and the rhetorics of science, technology, and medicine. In her free time, Sara enjoys knitting and listening to snarky audiobooks by female celebrities. She also watches opera the same way that others watch football.

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