top of page
  • eoldeathscholars

Being a Death Scholar in a Research-Intensive PhD Program

Graduate study is a daunting and intimidating endeavor. It is unlike anything that you have encountered in academia previously. Some describe it as a marathon, not a sprint; some describe it as an endurance test; and yet others, perhaps a bit on the cynical side, call it a form of self-imposed masochism. Graduate programs, like their respective institutions, are often described as either research-intensive or teaching-focused in scope. Often, we associate R1 institutions with research emphases and R2 institutions largely emphasizing teaching instead of hitting the proverbial books to produce original research as part of the graduate journey. 

As an interdisciplinary scholar of queerness in a college-wide interdisciplinary Communication & Information Sciences PhD at an R1 institution, research became second-nature early on. Having developed a research agenda from my undergraduate studies forward, centered in studies of gender and sexuality across varied contexts, I carried the interdisciplinarity from my undergraduate to my master’s degree in American Studies, where I researched anti-trans homicide and media coverage of trans death as part of my colloquium project to complete my first graduate degree. This was my initial foray into death studies. 

As a doctoral student in my first semester, I found myself reflecting on many questions regarding my own research agenda. Questions pertaining to phenomena like precarity, social death, rhetorical/metaphorical death, biopolitics - these were burning questions that I had, especially as I witnessed the growing sociopolitical climate surrounding trans identity in post-Trump America. I began seeking information, scholarship, anything that led to clarity and satisfaction of these curiosities. In a program where research conversations began almost within the first month, it became pertinent to start thinking about ways that traditional disciplines like communication studies/mass communications, rhetoric, media studies/journalism framed questions about bodies, sexualities, genders, and underlying questions of viability, livelihood, thriving, precarity, and death. 

At the early stages of a doctoral program, you may benefit from seeking like-minded colleagues and/or faculty members, who already have existent research agendas rooted in death/dying in its varied incarnations; however, the reality is, there may not always be such an individual in your program immediately obvious, waving a proverbial welcome flag. Instead, it may prove fruitful to inquire within your cohort; you have begun the graduate journey together, so you already share that experience - there may be more commonalities just waiting to be discovered. That was one avenue of research development that proved fruitful for me. Finding like-minded doctoral students to brainstorm ideas, to bounce ideas off of, and share research between yourselves. 

Many graduate programs encourage scouting out the faculty directory to find common interests between yourself and departmental/collegiate faculty. This is a very common practice in early graduate program acclimation. For death studies scholars, however, it may take a little more footwork than just scrolling through the online directory. For instance, I strongly encourage scoping out intersections within your scholarship as death scholars with other disciplines as well as area scholars from across campus. Interdisciplinarity can be your friend. Additionally, I also encourage spending some time sitting with your research curiosities, questions, and passions surrounding death studies. Write out your questions. A dry-erase board of pretty much any size can be your best friend in developing a strategy for developing a death studies research agenda. 

In addition to writing out your questions, consider the ways that your questions could be framed and reframed depending on context; altering your approaches, lenses, and framings can open up potential working relationships between yourself and fellow scholars in unexpected but fruitful ways that can grow your scholarship in richly nuanced and impactful ways. I think that this proved to be the most useful trick in my proverbial toolkit when developing my scholarly identity as an emergent death studies scholar while simultaneously nurturing my development as a critical/cultural rhetorical scholar. 

Once you have framed up your questions and curiosities surrounding death studies, seek out the connections between your questions and the questions other scholars in your institution are asking. There may not be a direct connection between your respective approaches, but it may be that you both have questions about a particular phenomenon that when approached jointly could produce something tremendously impactful for both parties concerned and enrich the understanding of your respective audience(s). This is a practice of interconnectivity and reflexivity - seek out connections between yourself and the social phenomena of others. The connections are there, waiting to be discovered. 

Death studies scholars emerge from myriad backgrounds and positionalities, asking countless questions about fascinating topics like funeral streaming, the biopolitics of public cemeteries, queering heterotopias in public memory, just to name a few. My final advice for navigating the PhD program as a death scholar is simple. Be yourself. Ask the hard questions. Don’t be afraid to walk alone sometimes. Walking alone academically in your respective department is not a death sentence (no pun intended); instead, it can often be an opportunity to carve out something uniquely your own in an environment where everyone is seeking that moment to shine and show off what they know or can do for their respective peers in their discipline.

The PhD student journey is never monolithic. It is uniquely personal. It is uniquely passion-focused. You should always celebrate that which makes you come alive as a scholar, as a researcher, as a person. If that thing happens to be death/dying in its numerous contexts, then that is tremendous. Join a growing field of scholars from across the globe who have embraced the universality of death/dying, the unique experientiality of mortality as it relates to sociocultural contexts, and who spend their academic and professional lives asking questions that are often rooted in the very essence of the human condition. 

Go forth and find livelihood within the ever-fluctuating study of the thanatological and the mortal. You may be surprised by the footsteps you find walking next to you in that journey. You are not alone. 

(Hart Island, NY: Photo Credit: The Hart Island Project,

This image was one of the first visuals that prompted my foray into death studies. Hart Island has existed in a liminal space in the harbor of NYC for over 150 years. Acting first as a training camp in The Civil War, Hart Island is now a public cemetery, with roots as a potters’ field for the indigent, forgotten, and unwanted in the NYC metro area. 


Author: JJ Jones

JJ Jones was elected as the DEI Chair of End-of-Life and Death Scholars, as well as the National Communication Association's Death and Dying Division, in 2024.

Find out more about JJ here: Bio

11 views0 comments


bottom of page