About Aimee Miller-Ott, Ph.D.: Aimee Miller-Ott is the Graduate Program Coordinator for the School of Communication at Illinois State University, where she also teaches courses as an Associate Professor. As Coordinator, Dr. Miller-Ott oversees curriculum development for the Master’s in Communication program, as well as student advising, recruitment, and admissions. The courses she teaches at the School of Communication cover topics in interpersonal and family communication, human communication throughout the lifespan, and the dark side of interpersonal communication. Her research interests include interpersonal communication, family communication, communication and identity, privacy management, and mobile devices in close relationships.
Dr. Miller-Ott earned her Bachelor of Science in Speech Communication from Northern Arizona University, and her Master of Arts in Interpersonal Communication from California State University Fullerton. She received her Ph.D. in Interpersonal and Family Communication from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Illinois State University’s Master’s in Communication program, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?
[Dr. Miller-Ott] We offer a generalist program, meaning that all students take three required courses followed by electives that they choose. We offer a flexible program that allows students to select the courses that make the most sense for their interests and personal and professional goals. This approach enables students to either focus on a couple of different areas of communication and select electives that focus on those areas, or take a collection of electives in a range of diverse subjects like interpersonal communication, organizational communication, mass media, and public relations. We offer 25 seminars that focus on content areas such as interpersonal, leadership, family, health, organizational, mediated, and instructional communication; rhetoric, public relations, persuasion, and training and development.
Our three required courses begin with the Proseminar in Communication Theory and Philosophy course, which is arguably our most challenging experience, but which is also one that students appreciate both during and after. It is the course that most alumni who attend doctoral programs credit with helping them succeed. Students learn to ask questions, understand the role of theory and research in our field, analyze key issues in our discipline, and articulate their own views and theories of communication. Critical thinking, analysis of others’ views, and gaining and articulating an in-depth understanding of human communication are all transferable skills to multiple types of careers after our program.
Our other two required courses are in research methods. All students must take quantitative methods. For the second methods course, students choose either qualitative methods or rhetorical methods. The exposure to multiple research methodologies is an important feature of the program that reflects the values of our graduate faculty and helps to train well-rounded communication graduate students.
The number of electives needed depends on the student’s choice of outcome option. Students may choose either the thesis option or the 39-hour option. Those pursuing the thesis route may complete either a traditional thesis or a documentary thesis. In sum, our program provides students plenty of choices along their path to becoming a scholar.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Illinois State University’s Master’s in Communication program offers students both a thesis and a non-thesis option (seminar paper or project) for their final graduation requirement. Could you please elaborate on what each of these two options entails?
[Dr. Miller-Ott] Students pick the outcome option they will finish the program with during their second semester. Those who complete a thesis may write a traditional thesis or take a creative approach with the documentary thesis. Students pick a thesis advisor and two committee members of their choice. During the thesis process, students hold a proposal approval meeting with their committee and, later, a final oral defense.
The traditional thesis is what I often explain as “a really big research project.” Students will articulate questions about a communication phenomenon, develop a methodological approach to studying the phenomenon, collect and analyze their own data, and present their findings and conclusions in the written thesis and in an oral defense. A documentary thesis requires students to complete an original research project and a documentary. Students who select this option must demonstrate proficiency in video production techniques through production courses completed as an undergraduate or graduate student; or through previously produced long-form video production work.
Those who pick the 39-hour option also pick an advisor and one committee member. The 39-hour option includes four additional elective courses as well as a substantially revised paper or project, typically from a prior seminar. Although 39-hour students do go through proposal and outcome steps, they do not have required public defenses. Many of our previous students have presented both thesis and 39-hour research at academic conferences and published these studies in peer-reviewed journals.
In our program, the student’s chair/advisor and committee function more like co-authors in terms of conceptualizing the projects and providing constructive feedback. In fact, it is not uncommon for students to ask their committees to later become co-authors and help revise their work in preparation for publication. I myself have published a few journal articles and book chapters with former graduate students. It is a rewarding experience to help students find ways to share their research with others beyond the ISU graduate program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Illinois State University’s Master’s in Communication program, and how can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems? Additionally, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program?
[Dr. Miller-Ott] Our students develop close professional relationships with their advisors and committee members as well as their seminar instructors. Faculty members often explain that one big difference between an undergraduate education in our program and a graduate one is that we see our graduate students as colleagues and not just as students. We view ourselves as collaborators, both in and out of the classroom. In class, we are discussing and coming to conclusions about communication and making sense of the content of the class together. We conduct research together. We also host a number of social and scholarly activities that involve both faculty and students, like our annual chili cookoff, professional development workshops, and research colloquia in which a faculty and a graduate student both share their research with members of the School.
The first semester includes opportunities such as a Preseminar Orientation Day and a Proseminar Night with graduate faculty where students get to know the faculty and their research interests and available courses, and become familiar with the available outcome options. In our program, everyone knows everyone else right from the beginning. We collect biographies and pictures from incoming students and circulate these prior to orientation, which helps everyone recognize and get to know each other faster. In short, we offer many professional and social activities and opportunities to take advantage of during their time here to grow as individuals, students, and members of our School community.
Our graduate faculty mentor students through advising concerning curriculum, research, conference involvement, publishing, and career pursuits. Approximately 40% of our graduates attend doctoral programs after completing our master’s program. Our students typically receive offers from multiple doctoral programs and end up attending a variety of top-notch universities. Another 40% pursue careers in the private or public sector, or employment with non-profits. The range of job titles and employers of our alumni are quite impressive. On our website, on the Applicants page, I have a list of past and current career positions that alumni from our program have held that I compiled through feedback from our alumni. The remaining 20% seek academic posts in areas such as advising, admissions, or non-tenure track teaching positions. Often, the student’s advisor, committee, or an alumni contact is instrumental in guiding students toward their next career step.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for Illinois State University’s Master’s in Communication program?
[Dr. Miller-Ott] We are a competitive program in terms of admission, but are extremely competitive with regard to Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) spots that give students opportunities to teach our introductory courses and provide them with a tuition waiver and monthly stipend. We do not require a GRE score, but do ask for a minimum GPA of 3.00 or higher over the last-60 hours of coursework. Nevertheless, we are not looking for spotless GPAs. The selection committee I chair evaluates applicants holistically and looks at the person behind the paper file we read. We are trying to predict potential and find students who appreciate the incredible opportunities provided by our graduate program. Although higher GPAs are helpful, we pay careful attention to letters of recommendation and the fit between the applicant’s interests and what our program offers (as indicated in the letter of application). We want to be sure that we are the right program for our applicants.
Regarding the GTA application, students submit a job application through the Human Resources website and a Statement of Teaching Interest, in which they explain the education and experiences they’ve had that they believe will contribute to their success as an instructor. Most of our GTAs do not have teaching experience coming into the program but tutoring experience, leading groups in class, volunteering, work positions, and other experiences all can contribute to their abilities to teach well, or at least to be open to learn to teach well through our GTA training program.
I generally advise applicants to seek letters of recommendation from those who have attended a graduate program themselves. These letters from faculty tend to be longer and more detailed than those from other recommenders, often speak to the academic and scholarly potential of the applicant (something the selection committee wants to know), and carry the credibility of coming from someone who knows what it takes to succeed in graduate studies. These letters should go beyond just talking about the personal characteristics (for instance, hard-working, dedicated, smart) of the applicant although we do like to see the recommender write about the applicants’ traits that will help them succeed in life. But we really want to know why the letter writer thinks that this person will succeed in a graduate program in communication.
Also knowing about our program, which comes through in the application materials, is important to us. In the application letter, we want to see that the student wants to study communication in our program. Sometimes students include specific names of faculty with whom they are interested in working, which shows that the student has explored the opportunities at ISU and has really thought about what makes ISU unique. Campus visits or conversations with us at conferences, over the phone, or via Zoom or email are typically helpful in navigating the admissions process and getting to know the program.
I always encourage applicants to have their files complete and submitted weeks before the deadline. Regarding the deadline of February 1, we start reviewing applications and giving program and GTA offers right after that date, but we do accept application materials after February 1. We think of February 1 as the priority deadline but as long as we still have room in our graduate program, we will review any applications that meet the criteria. The more time the selection committee can spend with a file before being inundated with a stack of materials at the deadline, the more opportunity there is for committee members to fall in love with a file.
While it is true that we usually have our pick of applicants, the reality is that applicants are also picking us – both when they decide to apply and when they accept our offer. Typically, it is the people here that make us their top-choice. Once recruits meet our graduate students, faculty, and staff, they feel the sense of family that makes ISU special. We truly are a collaborative environment, and not because we all agree or see things in the exact same way – we are actually quite a diverse-thinking group of people. But we dialogue, work together, and really put the needs of the program first which is fantastic.
I held a faculty position at another university before being hired at ISU. And although my previous position and the people there were fantastic, it was because of the strong reputation and people I had met who either worked in the School of Communication at ISU or went through the graduate program at ISU, that I chose to leave that other position and come here. It was one of the best life decisions I’ve made, hands down.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Illinois State University’s Master’s in Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Dr. Miller-Ott] Our program is highly flexible to allow students to focus on the areas of communication that most interest them and are relevant to their personal and professional goals. We average just over 80 master’s students in the program, but balance that with 25 graduate faculty members, so students receive personalized attention and enjoy a student-to-faculty ratio of just over 3 to 1. Our faculty in the School of Communication have won more teaching awards since 2002 than any other unit on campus. We are prolific scholars in our field at the regional, national, and international levels. We stay on the cutting edge of changes within the discipline and industry.
Our GTA training program is simply the best and helps our instructors feel prepared before they ever enter the classroom. Our social media lab (SMACC) and innovation center (CIC) provide cutting-edge technological tools for students that only exist at a handful of institutions. Civic engagement opportunities abound within the school, and are one of the core missions of the university.
We fund travel to the annual Central States Communication Association and National Communication Association conferences, provide GTAs the opportunity to be instructors-of-record in the basic communication course, and emphasize collaborative research. Our alumni attend the best doctoral programs and rise to the top of their cohorts, establish exciting careers in the private sector, and remain engaged after they leave because they cherished their time here. I would describe our school as laid-back, collaborative, and innovative. Our graduate students and faculty emphasize cooperation and do not create a competitive climate in which students might feel isolated.
While we are a fairly sizable graduate program, you don’t feel like you are just a number. Everybody knows everybody else, and supports one another. It is not the sort of culture in which students are left to sink or swim. We have an active Graduate Student Association (GSA) within the School that is always very active in connecting students, hosting events, and supporting each other. I am the faculty advisor, but the group is truly student-run, and any student in our program can become involved either as a member or on the executive board. There are just so many different opportunities to get involved with peers and faculty.
Thank you, Dr. Miller-Ott, for your excellent insight into Illinois State University’s Master’s in Communication program!
Note: This interview replaces an interview with former graduate program director Dr. Kevin Meyer, and has been updated with new information about Illinois State University’s Master’s in Communication program.