About Ahlam Muhtaseb, Ph.D.: Ahlam Muhtaseb is the Graduate Coordinator for California State University, San Bernardino’s (CSUSB) Master of Arts in Communication Studies program. As the Graduate Coordinator, she supports students throughout their enrollment, oversees recruitment and admissions, and advises prospective applicants. She also collaborates with faculty to develop and revise the program’s course offerings and extracurricular programming. As a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Dr. Muhtaseb also teaches courses in public relations, media studies, crisis communication, strategic public relations, gender and race in media, international communication, and digital culture. Her research foci include communication and social justice, digital media’s role in social movements, and narrative theory.
Dr. Muhtaseb earned her Bachelor of Arts with Honors in English Language and Literature from Hebron University in West Bank in 1994. She subsequently earned her Master of Arts in Public Relations and Government Relations from the University of Memphis in 2000. She received her Ph.D. in Computer-Mediated Communication from the University of Memphis in 2004.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of California State University, San Bernardino’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?
[Dr. Muhtaseb] Before I launch into a discussion of the curriculum content and structure of our program, I wanted to note that we recently approved modifications to our curriculum in alignment with the National Communication Association’s Learning Outcomes in Communication (LOC) Project. This project brought together 30 communication leaders to discuss how to “tune” the discipline of communication education, to ensure that students learn skills and knowledge that are relevant to the latest developments in the field. Based off of this initiative, CSU San Bernardino’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program developed learning outcomes for our students:
Goal One: Cultivate students’ ability to employ relevant theories, perspectives, principles, and concepts of communication. By which we mean we want our students to learn how to synthesize, apply, and critique major communication theories, issues, and concepts in both research and professional contexts.
Goal Two: Teach students how to evaluate and implement a range of research methodologies to investigate, understand, and explain communication phenomena. This involves the ability to critically read, interpret, evaluate, and apply communication scholarship, as well as being able to develop relevant questions and use methods of communication scholarship and research to identify, test, and verify hypotheses. We also aim for our students to have the knowledge and skills to contribute to academic conversations regarding communication phenomena.
Goal Three: Empower students to gain an overarching understanding of Communication Studies as a field, and its central questions. We accomplish this through courses that give students an understanding of the different schools of thought and philosophies that underpin our study of communication across all fields, from health to politics and corporate and organizational communication. We want our students to be able to make connections between communication and other disciplines, and to use their understanding and research skills to develop their careers and engage in social change.
We are working on revising our curriculum and the changes will be implemented in 2020. Additionally, we will be converting from a quarter system to a semester system which will somewhat change the credits system we use.
Now, let me go through our current Master of Arts in Communication Studies program and its current requirements. CSU San Bernardino’s program is comprised of 46-50 units, depending on students’ selected focus of study in the program. Our degree has coursework that enables students to specialize in intercultural communication, organizational communication, communication education, health communication, and media studies.
Students take three core courses:
- Introduction to Graduate Study: This course provides students with the foundation for their continued work in communication research. Students learn the assumptions, theories, and perspectives that are essential for advanced research projects in communication studies.
- Quantitative Research Methods in Communication Studies: Students learn how to design and implement quantitative research studies, including incorporating data collection methods and multivariate procedures to analyze human communication processes. This course emphasizes research in multicultural environments and using computer-assisted statistical analyses.
- Qualitative Research Methods in Communication: This course focuses on research using qualitative and interpretive methods, such as ethnography, interviews, rhetorical and cultural criticism, and discourse analysis. This class emphasizes multicultural communication studies.
After the core courses, students have the option to craft an individualized course of study according to their interests. A few examples of electives that students can choose from include:
- Health Communication: This class focuses on advanced theories and methods of health communication, as well as the issues and contexts that are relevant to this discipline. Interpersonal, organizational, and intercultural communication is explored in the context of public health and medical communication.
- Environmental Communication: In this course, students explore the relationship between environmental and sustainability issues and effective communication at the interpersonal, mass media, international/national, and organizational levels.
- Communication in Multicultural Organizations: The examination and analysis of the communication dynamics in multicultural and multinational communities. Students also learn how to apply research insights to strategies that cultivate and maintain cultural diversity in organizational settings.
- Feminist Contributions to Communication Theories: An exploration of how communication theories and rhetorical principles intersect with feminist theories, gender dynamics, and how we think about communication dynamics and gender dynamics. Diverse feminist perspectives that incorporate ethnic, religious, and social elements are also discussed and explored.
Regardless of their academic focus during their program of study, students must complete a master’s thesis, a professional project, or a comprehensive examination as their final graduation requirement.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students have three options: a thesis, a professional project, or a comprehensive examination. Could you elaborate on these three options, and what they entail?
[Dr. Muhtaseb] Both the professional project and the master’s thesis count for course credit, and are distinct in that the thesis is a research-based paper that focuses on communication theory and involves intensive primary research by the student, while the professional project is more applied in nature and can be more flexible in terms of the deliverable. For the thesis, students decide on an inquiry regarding a communication issue or phenomenon that is of interest to them, and which relates to their course of study. They then conduct a research study implementing quantitative and/or qualitative research methods, with the support and guidance of their primary advisor and thesis committee (which consists of their advisor and two other faculty members). The end product for the thesis is a structured paper that reviews the existing literature on the student’s chosen subject, outlines the research process he or she followed, and describes the results of the study and the conclusions drawn from the data. Students are also required to defend their thesis before their committee.
For the professional project, the deliverable could be a media product, community service or service learning projects, business or communication plans, a web design template for a revamp of an organization’s website, etc. The project option still requires communication research but this research is more focused on directly addressing an issue or a need in a professional or industry-focused arena, whether that be the non-profit sector, health care, marketing or public relations, business development, or corporate/organizational communication. As with the thesis, students receive support from a committee composed of their advisor and two faculty members of their choosing, and they are required to present their final project to this committee at the end of the term.
The comprehensive examination, unlike the thesis and project, counts for no credit, so students who choose this option must take five additional units. In the exam, students are tested on the concepts covered in the three core courses in the program, as well as four electives. The exam is individualized to each student, and each student’s committee members write the questions and evaluate students’ responses. If the committee finds that the student’s answers need more detail, they will ask him or her to orally defend their answers before the committee; this is a chance for students to fill in the blanks and explain concepts that might not have been sufficiently explained in the initial written responses.
Regardless of which final graduation requirement students opt for, their committee evaluates their final product using our established learning outcomes. For the thesis and project, students’ committees consult with them throughout the process to ensure that they illustrate a strong grasp of all the concepts, skills, and interdisciplinary understanding of communication that we want students to take away from our program. We take our students’ experience in the program very seriously, which was part of the motivation for the updates to our learning outcomes—we wanted to make them even more specific to help both faculty evaluate students’ progress, and to make students’ own learning goals more concrete as they progress through the program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in California State University, San Bernardino’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students, and how can they make the most of these opportunities?
[Dr. Muhtaseb] Faculty mentorship is one of the central elements of our program. Faculty officially support students as advisors and committee members, but the relationship extends far beyond that as well. Our faculty genuinely care about our students, and are excited about the questions they ask, the connections they make between course content and their own research interests, and the energy and drive they bring to discussions both in and outside of the classroom. We have a diverse cohort, and many of our students are the first generation in their family to go to college and/or graduate school. Some of them have financial stressors and yet are still persevering to get their graduate education, and our faculty go above and beyond to support them because we know how important it is for students to have role models and mentors who show them the many resources that are available to them on campus. Faculty mentor students in terms of job applications and applications for doctoral programs, and students can also receive support through our career center and tutoring centers on campus. Our career center offers a wealth of career support and mentorship for students, and they have even been known to supply students with formal clothes for an interview if they do not have them.
Our campus library gives students a lot of support in their research endeavors as well, including workshops on how to conduct research, use research databases, and put together a bibliography. And we also host our own conference for students’ research, called the Meeting of the Minds conference, which is held in May. This conference is an excellent way for students to get experience in conducting research and submitting their articles for review and publication. They have a chance to practice the process—how to edit your paper in collaboration with a professor, how to develop and deliver a strong conference presentation, etc. Oftentimes, our CSUSB research competition leads students to participate in the CSU-wide research competition, and then to larger journal submissions thereafter. Our Office for Student Research and Graduate Studies Office direct students to opportunities on campus, and the Office for Student Research even provides students with funding for extracurricular research and conference attendance.
We understand that for many students, independent research is an exciting but intimidating process, and by breaking down the steps into manageable goals with faculty support and guidance throughout, our students have been able to achieve their goals in both the academic and the professional realms.
Another fantastic opportunity that we provide our students is our Teaching Associate program. Job placement for our students who have been TAs at community colleges and universities is almost 100 percent, and that is because they receive such intensive training. Our students enroll in a teaching practicum every quarter, where they receive instruction and support from one of our professors and meet with this professor on a weekly basis to discuss class plans and course material preparation, as well as challenges or insights students have encountered during their work. For their first year, our TAs teach a class under the support and supervision of the TA Coordinator and the faculty member teaching the practicum course. During their second year, they are put in charge of two classes with less supervision.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in California State University, San Bernardino’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Muhtaseb] We have high expectations for our applicants, and prioritize their academic performance as a measure of how they will do in our program. We have a minimum GPA requirement of 3.0, and in general when we have a large applicant pool for a given year, we sometimes have to be more selective. That said, if students have a GPA that is lower than 3.0 due to extenuating circumstances such as a difficult family situation, we give students the option of explaining the situation to us. We know there are really good students who are ambitious and hard-working, who sometimes encounter challenges outside of school that temporarily impact their performance, and we are open to students who, despite those setbacks, have the drive to succeed.
We require three letters of recommendation, and request those are from professors who can attest to students’ academic aptitude or scholarly aptitude. Sometimes we may have students who submit two professors’ letters of recommendation and a professional reference such as their supervisor at their job, and that is good as well. We mainly prioritize academic references, however, given the rigorous research that our program expects of students.
Finally, the statement of purpose plays a crucial role because it helps us understand whether we are really the best fit for the student’s professional goals or not. In the personal statement, students should describe what drew them to the field of communication, their experiences in the field or related fields, and what specifically they hope to both gain from and contribute to our program. Our scholarly community is very important to us here at CSU San Bernardino, and we admit students whom we feel will make the most of the opportunities presented to them in the program. We like to see applicants who are eager to complete research and/or professional quality content that contributes to the field of communication, support their peers, and collaborate with faculty in continued investigation of how humans communicate. Voicing a desire to work in a particular area of communication research that CSU San Bernardino specializes in, or mentioning a conversation you have had with a professor in our Department can also go a long way, because it shows that you have done your research.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes in California State University, San Bernardino’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Dr. Muhtaseb] The level of faculty expertise and investment in students is exemplar at CSU San Bernardino. I am very proud of our faculty composition. We have high-caliber scholars who are well-known in their fields, and who are very productive in terms of scholarship. And this of course impacts the quality of instruction and also the quality of mentoring that our faculty provide to students. Our course curricula are carefully constructed to optimize learning outcomes for students, and as our upcoming curriculum changes illustrate, we are constantly working on improving our classes to better match what students need in the field. Another aspect of our program that I am particularly proud of is our TA-ship program, which is one of the most successful in the region. As mentioned previously, we have almost 100 percent job placement upon completion. Our graduates are highly praised. We often receive feedback from employers of our graduates, both in academic and industry settings, and our students perform very well and get good jobs.
I believe another part of our program that sets us apart is how we view the student holistically, and push them while also giving them the right support when they need it in order to excel. We encourage them to raise their own bar and to build their scholarly and professional profile, mentoring them to help them submit articles for conference presentations and to have confidence in themselves as junior scholars. The diversity of our student body means that we also serve a marginalized population of students, and to them, graduate school means upward mobility for them and their families; it means a huge difference in their lives and their families’ lives. And we nurture that, celebrate their courage and the broad-scale positive impacts of their hard work, and we are there for them every step of the way. And we are very proud of that.
Thank you, Dr. Muhtaseb, for your excellent insight into California State University, San Bernardino’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program!