About Cheryl D. Jenkins, Ph.D.: Cheryl D. Jenkins is an Associate Professor and the Graduate Program Coordinator for The University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) School of Mass Communication and Journalism. As Coordinator, Dr. Jenkins advises students in the Master’s in Mass Communication and Master’s in Public Relations programs, oversees curriculum development, and teaches courses within the School. Prior to her role at USM, Dr. Jenkins has held Assistant Professor positions at Texas Southern University and Xavier University of Louisiana.
Dr. Jenkins is also the Associate Director of the Center for Black Studies at USM. Before entering academia, Dr. Jenkins was a journalist at the Hattiesburg American and also worked as a media buyer for a political consulting firm in Washington, D.C. She is the recipient of the 2004 Mellon Fellowship for the Salzburg Seminar session on Ethics in News Reporting and Editing. She also received the Cheryl Smith Leadership Award in 2004 from the National Association of Black Journalists Region VII. She has published widely on the topics of race and gender in media, cultural diversity, and issues in popular culture.
Dr. Jenkins received her Bachelor of Science in Journalism and Master of Science in Mass Communication from The University of Southern Mississippi, and earned her Ph.D. in Mass Communication from Howard University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of The University of Southern Mississippi’s Master’s in Mass Communication program, and how it is structured? What learning outcomes can students expect from this program?
[Dr. Jenkins] Our Master’s in Mass Communication program focuses on giving students intensive training in mass communication theory and research. Our program is more theoretical than industry-focused, but we also offer a wide variety of classes that apply advanced communication skills and theories to real-world scenarios, particularly in the public relations space. Students take advanced theory courses and aesthetic value courses where they apply theories related to mass communication to culture, gender, media in society, and other topics.
The program itself is comprised of 30-33 credit hours, depending on whether students choose to do a thesis or complete additional coursework. The core of the program consists of the classes Mass Communication Theory and Critical and Cultural Theory, followed by an Introduction to Graduate Research class. Students then choose two classes from the following four: Content Analysis, Communication Research Methods, Telecommunication Media Research, and Statistics. These classes give students a strong foundation in research methods and theories that are central to the academic study of mass communication and media. After the core, students choose electives in areas such as public relations, international communication systems, marketing research, and media, culture, and society. We also have courses that focus on a specific issue in communication, such as race and gender in the media, the psychology of advertising, and crisis management from a public relations perspective. Students who decide to complete a thesis for their final graduation requirement receive a Master of Arts degree, while students who elect to take the additional coursework route receive a Master of Science.
Many of our students end up pursuing further graduate studies after leaving our program, but some of them do go into industry. We also offer a Master’s in Public Relations program for students who are interested in working in public relations. This program is separate from the Master’s in Mass Communication, with different core course requirements and final graduation requirements; however, students of the Mass Communication program can take electives from the Public Relations program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of The University of Southern Mississippi’s Master’s in Mass Communication program can choose between completing a master’s thesis or additional coursework. Could you elaborate on both of these options, what they entail, and how students should choose between them?
[Dr. Jenkins] For students taking the thesis route, they follow a very traditional process. Students select their primary advisor, who is generally a professor with whom they have taken a lot of classes, and/or who has research expertise in the student’s area of interest. They also choose two other faculty members to serve as readers, and these two readers along with the primary advisor comprise the three-person committee that supports students as they work on their thesis. Through one-on-one conversations with their advisor, students identify a problem or phenomenon that they would like to research, along with research questions and hypotheses. They then develop a research proposal that also includes their prospective methodology for their study. If they are going to have human subjects (such as people they will interview, survey, or observe), they must go through the Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval process. Students present their proposal to their committee for approval before conducting their study. They then conduct their study, write up their results and the discussion of their results, finalize and submit their thesis, and defend their final conclusions before their committee.
We encourage our students to investigate a thesis topic that connects to their personal interests or professional goals. For example, one of our students was very involved in animal rights, and also worked in advertising. His thesis concerned how animals are portrayed or exploited in advertising. It is important for students to feel very invested in their research topic, as that interest will carry them through the multiple weeks of intensive research that the thesis requires.
When students first come into the program, I meet with them one-on-one to get a sense of their interests and which track would be better for them. I ask them, “Why are you pursuing this graduate degree?” and from there we discuss optimal pathways for their tenure in the program. For students who have enrolled primarily because they want a credential for promotion at work, or to enhance their career prospects, the additional coursework option is generally a good option. Taking additional courses that delve into marketing principles and practices, or crisis management, or literary journalism gives students more opportunities to gain skills specific to their desired industry. For students interested in pursuing doctorate-level study, the thesis provides strong evidence of their research and writing abilities, which makes them good candidates for Ph.D. programs. We have had our students gain admission to top doctoral programs in communication through the advanced work they complete for their thesis.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in The University of Southern Mississippi’s Master’s in Mass Communication program? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems?
[Dr. Jenkins] Faculty mentorship is everything in our program. We are a pretty small program, with about 12 graduate faculty members and around 30 students in a given cohort. All of the faculty know the students, and vice versa, and as a result the intimidation factor is absent. I believe the kinds of relationships that students are able to form when in a graduate program makes or breaks students’ experiences, and as a result in our program we really prioritize the formation of strong mentorship bonds. As a faculty team, we also see mentorship as mutual. Faculty are always learning from students as our students bring fresh ideas from their own experiences. And we bring these insights from our students into our teaching.
That lack of intimidation factor and the philosophy of mutual mentorship means that our students have a very collegial relationship with their instructors and peers. They can work with faculty on independent research projects, they can publish together, and establish a strong track record of academic expertise.
In terms of career development services and academic support outside of our department, The University of Southern Mississippi has a Career Services Office with programming and counseling specifically for graduate students. We also have a Graduate Student Alliance, which is a social group for graduate students that plans career development events one or twice a semester.
Students definitely have strong support around career development, and students who graduate from our program with the aim to work in industry have about a 90 to 95 percent placement rate in their desired area. We really pride ourselves in making sure we focus on helping our students get jobs once they graduate.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes The University of Southern Mississippi’s Master’s in Mass Communication unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Dr. Jenkins] Our faculty’s commitment to mentorship and the close-knit nature of our department are two of the most distinctive aspects of our program. The diversity of our faculty also makes us stand out. We have faculty who have expertise in a wide range of areas, which provides students with fantastic opportunities to expand their skills and hone their critical thinking. We have faculty whose research expertise is very quantitative in nature, and data driven. We also have faculty who focus more on critical cultural studies, and those who focus in history. Our small class sizes also mean that students receive a lot of individual attention and support.
The community in our department is very close-knit, and we host a lot of events to create a cohesive community of students and professors. We have potlucks, happy hours, and other events that really create a family atmosphere. Students feel comfortable and supported. That said, it is a rigorous program and our students compete with students all over the country, at conferences and in competitions.
Our students learn to think through how media and communication work at a higher level, and how to be strategic leaders. Our classes also balance the theoretical and the professional well, placing both areas within the context of how students can improve their leadership and communication skills. For example, I teach an upper level course for doctoral and master’s students called, Gender, Race, and Media. In that course, we talk about how media affects how we see people and see the world, and also issues of diversity in upper management. Students learn to integrate these new insights into their decision-making, and to look at decisions at the individual, group, organizational, and mass media level in a more critical way.
The critical thinking skills that we help students build are relevant to many types of roles. In many cases, in their undergraduate careers students take a lot of practical, on-the-ground courses—where they learn the mechanics of writing for different fields, or how to shoot videos, or how to conduct research or analysis, etc. These courses are important but they lack the higher-level strategic focus that helps students advance in their careers and take on leadership responsibilities. Our program helps students progress from just executing on strategies to actually developing strategies. At that level, you want to be able to really think about how research informs practice, what certain communication phenomena mean, and how messages should be edited and presented to the public.
In addition to having a diverse faculty team, we have an incredibly diverse student body, including a lot of international students. We have actually won an award from a major professional group for the diversity in our program, and that is something in which we take a lot of pride.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Does The University of Southern Mississippi offer graduate assistantships to students?
[Dr. Jenkins] We do have assistantships, the majority of which are more administrative or research-oriented, versus teaching positions. Once students are accepted into the program, they inform me that they are interested in the assistantship, and I request their resume and any sort of bio information they want to include. The director of the department and I meet, we figure out where we need help, and we look at students’ resumes. From there, we have an informal phone conversation and we match students to positions according to their experience and interests. It is not a formal interview process, and in general for all of our master’s students, we try to fund everyone who needs it. Graduate assistantships include a full tuition waiver and a little stipend. For those who don’t want to take out loans for tuition it’s definitely very helpful.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in The University of Southern Mississippi’s Master’s in Mass Communication program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Jenkins] We evaluate applications holistically, by which I mean we take students’ GPA, GRE, personal statements, and letters of recommendation into account. We also ask students to submit writing samples, and what we look for in the application materials is proof of strong critical thinking skills and a good work ethic as illustrated by their past academic performance and their letters of recommendation. We also expect our students to articulate clearly why they are interested in going to graduate school in communication, and how our program and courses will help them achieve their goals. The more specific students are, the better; we like seeing that they have done their research.
[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 graduate school experience, and making the most of the opportunities presented to them?
[Dr. Jenkins] Time management—it is the difference between students who make it through the program with flying colors, and those who have a much harder time. Part of effective time management is really acknowledging and accounting for the fact that you have this very significant thing happening in your life right now. You have to account for the class time, the homework, and independent research projects. And usually at that point in a person’s life when they are pursuing a graduate degree, they also have increased life responsibilities. You may be married. You may have kids, and/or a full-time or part-time job.
It is very important for students to map out their calendar even before the program starts, to identify and organize what they have to do during the day, and plan ahead for when things are due. We help prepare students for the transition to graduate school through a course called Introduction to Graduate School. It is an introduction to research course in which we talk about how to acclimate yourself to graduate work and research.
In that class I do know that instructors go through how to navigate graduate programs successfully, how to manage their time well and prioritize effectively. I find the one area where students get off track, particularly for those who come from undergrad straight into a masters program, is that the nature of graduate work is quite different from undergraduate work. Students coming into graduate school may be surprised to see that there is not a lot of work listed on the syllabus. They might have a mini paper at the start, and then a major paper at the end, and they aren’t prepared for the amount of work that should go into that major paper. For graduate school, nine hours is considered full time, whereas 12-15 credit hours was considered full time in undergrad.
It seems like you are doing less, when in reality you’re doing so much more. The first semester, at the end of December is generally when I’m advising or mentoring or talking to the most students, encouraging them because they are so caught off guard by the amount of work that goes into that final paper. For many of my students, it’s their first time doing a major research paper, and they weren’t taking the time throughout the semester to slowly produce the information that’s necessary for the full paper. So it is very important to mentally prepare for the less structured and in many ways more intensive experience of graduate school—it requires that you be organized, and that you physically map out your schedule so you know what you need to accomplish and when.
Thank you, Dr. Jenkins, for your excellent insight into The University of Southern Mississippi’s Master’s in Mass Communication program!