About David Ryfe, Ph.D.: David Ryfe is the Director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at The University of Iowa. As Director, he oversees the School’s operations, supports faculty and staff, manages curriculum development and evaluation, and supervises the budget. In addition, as a Professor, he teaches classes in media history and culture, journalism studies, and freedom of expression. His research concerns the intersection of presidential communication, political communication, and the sociology of news. He is the author of the award-winning book Can Journalism Survive?: An Inside Look in American Newsrooms. His most recent book, Journalism and the Public (Polity, 2017) explores the relationship of journalism to public life.

Dr. Ryfe earned his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Creative Writing, his Master’s degrees in Communication and Political Science, and his Ph.D. in Communication from the University of California, San Diego.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of The University of Iowa’s Master of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?

[Dr. Ryfe] Our Master of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication is an academic master’s degree, meaning that its goal is to prepare students to go onto a Ph.D. program, either with us, or with another institution. Within our program, our master’s degree students are essentially in the same classes as Ph.D. students, and therefore benefit from doctorate-level discussions around mass communication theory and research. Their master’s thesis also mirrors the Ph.D. dissertation process, which helps prepare them for more rigorous research projects in their future academic career.

The program is comprised of 31-32 course credits. Students are required to take the course Approaches to Media Communication, which is a review of mass communication theories and their history. This class is an opportunity for students to discover which area(s) might be of interest to them within the study of mass communication and journalism.

After taking this class, students work closely with their faculty advisor to identify a series of classes that will help them write their master’s thesis on the topic they are interested in. They have to take one Methods Area course and one Theory Area course, but even these class selections are up to them and their advisor, as long as it is from within the Department’s offerings. Students take three classes specific to their chosen concentration, and two classes of their own choosing. Their concentration classes and electives can be from contiguous departments, as we have strong relationships with the Communication Studies Department, the Political Science Department, and the History Department, among others.

Our students can take classes in philosophy, political communication or political science, history, gender studies, anthropology, and more, as long as they can justify these course selections to their faculty advisor and explain how they are relevant to his or her research interests. The flexibility of the curriculum in our program, and the one-on-one mentorship that forms the foundation of each student’s personal course of study, is very much like the Ph.D. student’s experience. In this way, we prepare our master’s students for the autonomy they can anticipate in a doctoral program in communication.

Aside from the one core class they are required to take, students must also enroll in a Master’s Seminar, which is weekly meeting in which faculty and graduate students at both the master’s and the Ph.D. level meet to discuss professional experiences and professional development. During this seminar, the faculty member might bring in people to speak about various jobs, and may also host presentations about putting together a conference paper, presenting at conferences, and publishing one’s research in journals.

The majority of our students go into a doctoral program upon graduating. Most of our students already have some professional experience when they come to our master’s program, and have decided that they want to teach either at the university or the community college level. Armed with their previous professional experience and their master’s degree, they can go out and become an instructor at most any journalism school across the country. Our graduates also have continued on to get their Ph.D. and focus more on research and scholarship, either in university settings or in other environments. This program is ideal for individuals who studied journalism in undergrad or are currently working in journalism.

We have a fairly small cohort—year to year, we typically have anywhere between two to five master’s students, and two to five PhD students. The small and intimate nature of our student cohort ensures that each student gets truly individualized attention, and the master’s students benefit from the mentorship, not only of our faculty members, but also of our doctoral students. Students who continue on from our master’s program into our Ph.D. program have their master’s thesis requirement waived (as they will be doing a dissertation in the Ph.D. program); in this case, students must complete one additional elective and pass a qualifying examination. We have had several students go this route.

The University of Iowa’s Master of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication is one of the oldest graduate programs in mass communication in the country, founded in 1954. So students of both our master’s program and our Ph.D. program benefit from the longstanding history that our department has had researching and working in this field, which has undergone several evolutions over the past few decades.

At Iowa, our interest in cultural approaches to media emerged through a rather organic process of faculty coming in who had diverse interests that were current to their field, and which evolved as mass media continued to develop. Currently, we have an emphasis in cultural approaches to mass media, particularly in the digital domain.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of The University of Iowa’s Master of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication must complete a master’s thesis. Could you elaborate on the thesis, and what it entails?

[Dr. Ryfe] When students come to campus, they are assigned an advisor from our faculty team based off of their stated interests in their application and who among our faculty would be the best fit for these interests.

Typically that person becomes their committee advisor sometime within the first two semesters, though students do have the option of switching advisors if their interests shift during the program and they want to pursue a different course of study or research that would be better served by another faculty’s expertise. Before starting their thesis in earnest, students must also select two other faculty members who will serve as readers of their thesis and additional advisors throughout their research; together, these two faculty members and the student’s primary advisor comprise the student’s committee.

The committee advises students about outside readings that will help their research, as well as the depth and breadth of their research inquiry and the structure of their final paper. Students follow a traditional process to complete their thesis, consisting of conducting a literature review, drafting a research proposal, completing quantitative and/or qualitative research, analyzing and writing up their results, and defending their final thesis before their committee.

Outside of the thesis, students’ advisors and committee members also support them in their projects for other classes and serves as mentors if students wish to translate their independent or class research into journal articles or conference papers. Later on in the student’s course of study, advisors also provide guidance and support around next steps, such as applying for Ph.D. programs or teaching positions, and building a professional network.

As students start thinking about their master’s thesis topic from the beginning of their enrollment in the program, their projects end up being highly personalized. For example, one student who has gone on to get her Ph.D. at the University of Utah wrote her master’s thesis on fashion blogs, examining them as a new kind of journalism, and she continued this course of research for her dissertation. Some students have explored the transformation of public relations over the last few years, while others have investigated the connection between digital media and communication technologies and health communication.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in The University of Iowa’s Master of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication? 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 mentorship opportunities and support systems?

[Dr. Ryfe] I covered some of the answer to this question above, in my discussion of the master’s thesis; as the thesis is the cornerstone of the program, much of the advising in the program occurs within the context of preparing our students for this advanced research endeavor, and supporting them throughout the process of completion.

In addition to thesis-oriented mentorship, our master’s students also benefit greatly from our faculty’s support in publishing and presenting at conferences. In general, our department is able to support our master’s students in attending one conference annually—for example, the AEJMC conference or the ICA conference, which are two of the major associations in which we tend to participate.

We provide graduate assistantships to our master’s students and Ph.D. students who need funding. These assistantships are primarily teaching assistantships, though every now and then one of our faculty will have grant money to hire a master’s student for a research assistant. That said, the majority of our master’s level graduate assistants teach lower-division classes such as our undergraduate journalism or multimedia storytelling classes, if they have professional experience in journalism or video editing or production. For our more academically oriented master’s students, we ask them to teach our undergraduate media history and media uses and effects classes. Some of the larger undergraduate lecture classes such as our large lecture in social media will require three to four teaching assistants, so there are more than enough opportunities to be a teaching assistant.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in The University of Iowa’s Master of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Ryfe] The first step I would suggest for any student interested in our program is to contact me or the Director of Graduate Studies, and have a conversation about their goals. I think that it is really important to make sure that there is a good fit between the program and the goals of the student. That is true of any graduate program, but it is particularly important in such a small and student-focused environment as we have here at The University of Iowa. The mechanics of applying are similar to any graduate program that they’d apply for. Students are required to submit a cover letter, writing samples, undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, and GRE scores.

For letters of recommendation, either academic or professional references work. We want to read recommendations from people who can speak to the applicant’s ability to complete rigorous work, think analytically, and conduct quality research. They should also speak to your work ethic, writing skills, and creativity, which are relevant in both academic and professional settings. For a smart, 22-year old recent grad, their best bet is probably one of their professors. However, if you are a professional who has been in the workforce for several years and have lost touch with your former undergraduate professors, a letter from your supervisor who has seen the quality of your work would be a strong choice.

What we want is a set of references that give us the widest view of who you are, what you’re capable of doing, and what your goals are. And if that involves your professional network, then that is fantastic—leverage that network.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes The University of Iowa’s Master of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Ryfe] What distinguishes our program is our faculty, their research expertise (and therefore the curriculum they can provide), and their commitment to students. Our curriculum is really designed around cultural studies of media. For students who are interested in cultural studies of media, particularly digital media, we have a strong presence in the research of digital media, and a lot of our classes are oriented around different aspects of digital communication.

Once you make connections with faculty mentors in our program, we can help guide you through your education, as well as the next steps you’re going to take to advance your education or career. As a faculty team we are proactive and enthusiastic about working with students, and we invite potential applicants to come and talk to us before they apply, to learn more about our research interests; we will connect them to professors who share similar interests so that they can talk about their experiences and goals.

[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. Ryfe] Part of what our master’s students are doing in our program is beginning that transition from being a consumer of information to a producer of knowledge, a process that is continued at the doctoral level. Graduate school is not like undergrad, which, for all its rigor, can be a fairly passive experience, in that the classes have structure and assignments that reinforce the accrual of knowledge, more than discovering it. In our mentoring of students, when we talk about balancing time, we want to make sure that they have adequate time to do that exploration, and to make those discoveries, because that is what graduate school is all about.

And that means having time to do reading outside of a particular class, auditing classes that interest you, and making connections early on with professors. My advice to students in the program is to really make use of the support we provide as a dedicated faculty team, and to create spaces where the type of research and exploration that is so central to graduate school can happen.

Also, map out your obligations and be realistic about what you need to commit to each. Most students in our program commit 20 hours a week in their teaching assignment. They will spend as much as 10 or 15 hours a week on their classes, and 5 to 10 hours a week for their assignments and independent research (thesis related and otherwise). With all of these obligations, you need to be strategic about how your schedule, and your faculty advisor will help you make those choices. Your advisor will work with you to optimize your opportunities in the areas in which you are invested.

For example, let’s say I have a master’s student who has eight years of professional experience and wants to transition into teaching. Since teaching is their focus, I as their advisor would help them explore and leverage the opportunities to gain teaching competence on campus—not only the graduate assistantships, but also the teaching certificate that they can pursue through the College of Education. Maybe we decide that it is in the student’s best interests to carve out some time to pursue that certificate and enhance their teaching skills. So these are the types of things that we work out individually with each student as we learn more about their needs and goals.

Thank you, Dr. Ryfe, for your excellent insight into The University of Iowa’s Master of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication program!