About Alexis Pulos, Ph.D.: Alexis Pulos is an Assistant Professor and Co-Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Communication at Northern Kentucky University. As Co-Director, Dr. Pulos oversees student advising, manages student admissions, and collaborates with Department leadership to shape the program’s direction and course offerings. He also supports students and faculty in the scheduling and completion of comprehensive examinations, theses, and projects, including helping students match with faculty advisors. Dr. Pulos also teaches the Communication Proseminar class in the program, where he orients students to the program and helps them build the necessary skills to succeed in the program.
Dr. Pulos earned his Bachelor of Arts in Speech Communication and his Master of Arts in Communication Studies from Colorado State University, and his Ph.D. in Communication from the University of New Mexico, where he specialized in digital media, game studies, and critical cultural studies.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Northern Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and how can students tailor their program of study in their electives?
[Dr. Pulos] The program is designed for individuals who are looking to further their knowledge in critical dialogue or within a business/professional context. While we have some students who go on to get a doctorate degree, our main orientation is towards a business and organizational communication context, while also giving students the depth and knowledge they need to be successful in a Ph.D. program. We do not have set concentrations, and tend to focus on broader areas of interest, namely organizational communication and communication within the context of community and culture.
In terms of the curriculum specifically, students take several core courses before progressing to their electives. They first take a Communication Proseminar, which introduces students to the field of communication and to graduate-level research, writing, inquiry, and analysis. They also take Communication Theory, which teaches them about the foundational communication theories that guide research in this discipline, and either a class in quantitative or qualitative research methods. Students must also take 9 credit hours of coursework in Communication and Contexts, which includes classes in organizational and business communication, interpersonal and family communication, intercultural communication, and communication for social justice. These classes allow students to delve into different types of communication and their unique environments.
Electives that students can choose from are extensive, and include courses in gender and communication, communication pedagogy, language and social interaction, digital media, rhetorical criticism, health communication, public relations, and more. Students consult with their faculty advisors when crafting their program of study to ensure they take the classes that suit their interests and career goals.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of Northern Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Communication program can choose between a thesis, a capstone project, and a comprehensive examination. Could you please elaborate on these three options, and what each entails?
[Dr. Pulos] The option that is most commonly chosen by students is the comprehensive exam. This typically consists of students working with three different professors from whom they’ve taken a class. Students then decide on a general focus from each of these three classes to inform the content of their exam. The student and the professor work together to establish a core concept or core idea on which their exam will be based, and the student makes a list of readings that the exam questions will draw from. Each professor on the student’s exam committee uses the student’s list of readings to create several questions from which the students must answer.
The student then takes three hours to complete one question set and may take each exam at any three hour block during a one week period. The comprehensive exam is therefore highly student directed and there are few surprises since the exam is the product of a collaboration between student and faculty from the beginning.
The second option that students tend to take on is the capstone project. This is geared towards students who want to do an applied project of some sort that is relevant to their future career. Students can either work with a community or an organization to address a challenge or project that they need, which gives students the chance to apply the material they have learned in their master’s program. The capstone project is usually done over one semester, but it can extend across two semesters for students who are doing a larger project.
We had a student a year ago who worked with a local animal adoption agency. She created a graphic novel for children and teens to help them understand the animal adoption process and what that might look like, and then wrote up a paper to describe the research that went into the development of the novel. What this student was trying to address was a lack of understanding between children and adults regarding adopting an animal. For instance, our student saw a need for families to understand what to do if an animal is sick—the resources you must leverage to take proper care of the cat or dog. This student distributed her graphic novel to local animal adoption agencies and then analyzed whether the novel was successful or not as an informational resource.
As another example of a capstone project, we had a student who wanted to investigate the gentrification process in one of the neighborhoods here in Cincinnati. She attended local community meetings and worked with one of the organizations that was trying to address and negotiate the ways in which the city works with local communities as the gentrification process happens. Her goal in this project was to help negotiate or facilitate conversations between local constituents and the city. She created an outline and a plan for a mediation process for the two parties.
The final option is the thesis project, which is similar to other standard, traditional thesis projects across most master’s programs. Students work with a professor as their advisor over the course of two semesters to create a research project that allows them to examine and understand a communication phenomenon within its context. For example, we had two students complete thesis projects this year. One of them analyzed the integration of Instagram with Tinder and how opportunities arise as a result of this merging at the level of the user. We had another student who examined high school students’ college selection process and the role that guidebooks play in analyzing what colleges are doing, what high schools are doing, and how students can sometimes get lost in between the goals of those two organizations.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Northern Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Communication program? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems?
[Dr. Pulos] In our program, faculty mentorship is guided by each student and his or her interests. In the first year of the program, students meet professors from across our department and get to know their research interests. By the end of their first year, students have a stronger idea of their graduation plan with the help of their classes and faculty advising. For their culminating experience, students choose their faculty mentors, and the type of mentorship they receive depends on their chosen culminating experience.
If a student is completing the comprehensive examination, they typically meet with their professors once or twice to set up the focus of the question. Then students meet once again to show the research that they have done. With the thesis and capstone project, students and faculty tend to meet more often, several times in a week when students are just beginning, and then at least twice a month so that students stay on track. For the thesis I tend to meet with my students every other week to go over materials, give advice on applying methodologies, and discussing any questions they might have.
In terms of extracurricular research and mentorship opportunities, we have absolutely had students who co-publish work with professors; I encourage all students to do this. We also offer graduate assistantships that students can receive for funding for one year of their program while getting research experience with a professor. The benefit of that is that students get to work directly with professors, participate in their research, and have their name on publications. I would say that at least three or four students per year attend a local conference and then we have had a couple students attend national conferences every year.
We also offer a unique teaching opportunity, which is a teaching certificate where students take three classes in pedagogy and then they have an in-class opportunity to study with a professor or to observe or shadow a professor in a class. They then teach a couple of classes and by the end of that they are able to teach courses at Northern Kentucky and surrounding regions. Most of our students get this certificate so that they can teach students as soon as they are done with their master’s program.
In our Department, there are also opportunities for mentorship above and beyond faculty. We have a graduate student organization where peers can meet to do peer editing or peer reviews. We also have a campus writing center that is both for undergraduate and graduate students, where students can get help with their projects. In terms of career opportunities we have a couple of offices on campus that are for applied informatics or applied communications. There is also an office that helps students get engaged with local community members.
Kroger is in the Cincinnati area, as is Proctor and Gamble, which are two large companies that hire our communication graduates. We have a startup environment and there are several companies in downtown Cincinnati that our faculty members help students get in touch with so they can work with them. We have also partnered with a health communication program through both the University of Kentucky and St. Elizabeth’s which is a regional hospital. We are developing classes and courses that help connect communication theories and strategies to the health industry in Kentucky.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Northern Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students particularly well for a variety of advanced careers in communication leadership?
[Dr. Pulos] Some of the things that make our program compelling: we are a fairly small program, and as a consequence our program has a close-knit feel where we can really tailor the program to each student’s interests. Most of our classes are face-to-face, though we do integrate some online and hybrid classes for increased flexibility, which is advantageous for students who have full-time or part-time jobs.
One of the things that I find unique about NKU is that the majority of our professors who teach graduate classes have served or are currently serving on regional and national committees in the communication discipline, and we all also publish our research. As a result, we know how the communication discipline is advancing, and are highly involved in conferences and conventions, which then provides our students with a lot of useful connections with people. For a regional university to give students access to specific resources and networks at both the local and national level is unique and quite beneficial.
In addition, the fact that we as a faculty team are always conducting research is advantageous because we are continually furthering our knowledge of the field in general while also seeking ways to involve students in our research endeavors. We tend to do a lot of work with students with their thesis projects and with class projects, with the aim of helping them submit their work to conferences or for publication if they wish. We have had multiple students submit their work to conferences in the area and win awards with their research. We actively encourage students to take material from their classes and extend their research outside the classroom in pragmatic ways.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in Northern Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Pulos] When we are first going through the application packets, some of the things that make a student stand out is to have a really great writing sample. We look for samples that clearly have excellent editing, where the structure is itself compelling. We also look for that critical awareness which is essential in research—we want to see writing samples that illustrate depth of thought and knowledge, and which highlight their interests and skills in research and analysis.
Students’ statement of interest should show focus and initiative, and explain where they want to go and what they want out of the program. We realize that they can’t know exactly what they want to focus on in their program, but an umbrella awareness of what our master’s degree offers and what it is that they are interested in shows initiative and allows us to know how to direct them best once they come into the program. I would also encourage applicants to mention if there are any professors that they might want to work with, or whose interests align with theirs—it is always a good idea to include that in your statement of purpose.
For letters of recommendation, I recommend that students seek a balance between academic and professional references if possible, but for our students who are either right out of school or who have been working in industry for many years, it is perfectly fine to have letters of recommendation from all academic or professional sources.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of master’s in communication programs often must balance work, internships, coursework, and rigorous research projects. What advice do you have for students in terms of successfully navigating their online graduate school experience, and making the most of the opportunities presented to them?
[Dr. Pulos] Time management is always a struggle. But one strategy that tends to work well for many of our students is simply blocking out times for reading. It’s important to do that so that you can bring all the material together. Start projects early so you can work through the context and content and material, while also leveraging rough draft revision opportunities. In classes we tend to encourage students to do some peer editing just so they can bounce ideas around. I also advise starting your assignments as early as possible as it is really helpful in terms of fleshing out your thought process and pushing your content to be the best it can be.
We also have a lot of students who will work together and support each other through a shared experience. We have a lot of parents who are working full-time, and who are attending the program while balancing their professional and familial obligations. And there is a pretty tight community of students that help each other to be successful. So I really recommend making those connections with peers so that they can help you be successful and you can do the same.
Thank you, Dr. Pulos, for your excellent insight into Northern Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Communication Program!