The following is a transcript of a Gmail chat between Douglas, a student blogger and Ph.D. Student in Communication Studies and Natalie Bartolacci, Academic Program Officer at Rackham Graduate School.
Natalie: Hi Douglas! You are in your first year as a Ph.D. student, but you had a professional career before you started your program. Let’s talk about what that has been like for you.
Douglas: Before I got to graduate school I was an advertising Creative Director for most of my career. I have also worked as a television producer, Communications Director and newspaper columnist.
Natalie: That must have been an exciting (and busy) career! How many years of work experience did you have before coming to graduate school?
Douglas: Some of the experiences overlapped, but I was in the world of work for 25 years before I got to this stage of my graduate career.
Natalie: You did a master’s degree somewhere in that time, correct?
Douglas: Yes. I have an M.A. in New Media and Society from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom.
Natalie: Your career path has certainly been in the communications and creative area, and your master’s is also in that same area. How did you make the decision to pursue a Ph.D. in Communications?
Douglas: My career did two things, it demonstrated the power of the media to me (media effects) in a very real way and it made me think about how identity is constructed, performed and displayed. Couple that with the preponderance of social media as a means of communication and expression and the Ph.D in Communications becomes a fait accompli.
Natalie: How did your professional experience specifically shape your research interests you would pursue here as a Ph.D. student?
Douglas: My work centres around constructions, portrayals and performances of identity as a means of pushing back against media constructed and sustained tropes and stereotypes. My professional experience in advertising and some of the feedback we got on the work made me think very intensely about identity, stereotypes and tropes. I come from the Caribbean which has been reduced to constructions of ideal vacation spots, cruise ship ports of call and the like.
Natalie: It sounds like your research interests are deeply woven from/into your personal identity. So let’s fast forward to the present day with you as a first-year Ph.D. student. What was it like to return to an academic setting as a Ph.D. student?
Douglas: I would say almost seamless. This is my job, this is what I do, what I want to do. I’ve been told that I have age privilege (it doesn’t help that I have a grey beard at times) which can make it easier for me to interact with faculty – I don’t see it though. On the odd occasion there is some dissonance when I introduce myself as a student but that’s to be expected I suppose.
Because my professional experience is as it is, I have had massive experience with presentation and public speaking and that has counted also. The foundation of creative work is research so that skill has also been of benefit.
Natalie: You have mentioned in recent posts that you have felt the effects of the Impostor Syndrome as a graduate student. How would you explain that phenomena to someone? Did it surprise you to experience it since you presumably felt agency and efficacy in your professional career.
Douglas: Identity is a multilayered construction – we are concurrently performing any number of named roles that we claim. I had the luxury of claiming my professional identity for a very long time (almost as long as some of my cohort has been alive) and am still new to this identity of Ph.D. student – that’s where the doubt sets in. Immersed in an intellectual space where you feel the buzz, it is easy to measure yourself against another’s performance and become disenchanted. It’s not about grades, it’s about ‘Can I do this?’ It surprised me but it’s par for the course. Answering the question is the first step – either way you answer it you’re on the way to ridding yourself of the Syndrome.
Natalie: Thank you for your time and your honesty. The first year of graduate school can be quite an adjustment, but I’m sure you are going to thrive here.
Douglas: Natalie, thank you for taking the time. I have enjoyed this, thanks also for your positive sentiments. Go Blue!
Natalie: Go Blue!