Stanford University Communications - Anita Varma

by Kelsey Szukhent

This interview is with Anita Varma, a communications graduate student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., expecting to graduate in June 2017. We recently spoke with her and asked her about her experience within her program and what she's planning to do with her professional future.

What has your experience in the program been like at Stanford?
My experience in the Communication PhD program at Stanford has been intellectually rewarding and challenging. The first two years of the program are primarily spent on course work, and I was fortunate to enter with an amazing cohort of peers who are committed, enthusiastic, and brought a diversity of perspectives to our seminars on theories of Communication. After the first two years, we focus primarily on dissertation research. My dissertation is about the connection between social justice, solidarity, and American journalism.

Were there other schools you were considering, and if so, why did you choose this one?
I considered several other schools, but ultimately chose Stanford because of the interdisciplinary focus within the department and at the university. Stanford’s program was striking because of the wide range of approaches to Communication that are housed in a single department. The opportunity to learn how to tackle the same question from various perspectives was very enticing.

Anita Varma

What influenced you to pursue a major/career in Communication?
I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is a city that has several local newspapers. My grandfather  moved to Pittsburgh from India - having never left India previously - and relied on local newspapers to orient himself to his new surroundings. I remember that he would read no fewer than three newspapers a day, and subscribed to Indian newspapers as well. Journalism was crucial for him to feel connected to Pittsburgh and to maintain a connection to India. From an early age, I was intrigued by how journalism does more than simply inform people of what is happening - and its implications for cultural identity. 

I completed my BA at Vassar College. The Media Studies program was established the year I started college. My senior thesis was about news representations of Hurricane Katrina in mainstream and alternative news weeklies. While I was completing my undergraduate thesis, I applied to work in online advertising at Google. Working at Google from 2008-2011 was fascinating, and made me eager to continue studying communication and media at the graduate level. 

After coming to Stanford, I developed an interest in teaching as well. I have been a teaching assistant in Communication for 12 consecutive quarters, which has been extremely gratifying. Teaching assistants get to lead discussion sections with Stanford undergrads, and these discussion sections have been a highlight of my time here. Stanford undergraduates are endlessly energetic, enthusiastic, and engaged with current questions related to media and communication, and they have constantly reinvigorated my desire to pursue a career in Communication.

What is your favorite class so far, and why?
My favorite class at Stanford is Communication 314 (Qualitative Social Science), which I took in winter 2012. My advisor, Ted Glasser, taught the class and introduced us to key thinkers in qualitative cultural studies of Communication. We read James Carey, Richard Rorty, Clifford Geertz, and Stuart Hall, to name a few, and these authors have informed and shaped my core research questions. 

What is unique about the nature of your major’s classes?
I would be reluctant to claim that this is unique to Communication, but the undergraduates tend to praise Communication classes for being clearly relevant to their own lives and their understanding of media, which is increasingly central to their understanding and experience of social, political, and cultural dynamics.

What are the best ways to network with your peers within your major?
The best way to network with peers in the Communication PhD program is to attend department events, and to strike up conversations with people both within and outside your research area. The Comm department is eclectic, which means that it is likely that no two people in the department are working on the same question - though our questions are often related. My work is in Critical Cultural Studies, and has definitely improved through conversations with folks who work in different areas (such as Political Communication and Human-Computer Interaction). Explaining a research approach to someone outside the narrow area -- but still within the field -- is a great challenge, and can lead to new insights.

Have you participated in any internships?
I interned for The New Yorker when I was at Vassar College, and have not interned during my time at Stanford.

What are your future career plans and aspirations?
I hope to become a professor, with a focus on critical cultural studies of journalism.

What has been the most challenging aspect of this area of study, and was this something you had originally anticipated?
The most challenging aspect of media studies is figuring out what is novel versus a continuation of something that has been going on for a while. In an age of social media buzz, it is easy for everything related to media to seem brand-new, but it is important to situate media trends in their historical context. That said, sometimes things truly are new and warrant new analyses. It is equally important not to assume everything is new as it is to veer away from assuming that nothing is new.

What advice would you give someone else trying to break into this field?
I would advise getting hands-on experience in media before studying it. I was a journalist for several years, and then worked in online advertising. Having firsthand experiences in the field helps inform research questions, and can be helpful for thinking about new avenues and topics as well. 

How are you financing your education, and what are your most helpful online resources or tools?
I am funded through the Communication Department, and serve as a teaching assistant for Communication classes.

What is the best piece of advice related to your field of study that you have received?
The best advice I’ve received related to Communication was from a past PhD student who is currently an assistant professor. His advice was to “follow your bliss” and to trust that a topic you find interesting and important is likely to be interesting and important to a larger audience. His point was that while it may be tempting to hop on a bandwagon of topics that seem popular, it is better to stay true to your passions and genuine interests - and the rest will follow. 

Anita's Reading List:

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