About Donovan Conley, Ph.D.: Donovan Conley is an Associate Professor of Rhetorical Studies in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), where he also serves as the Graduate Coordinator. He advises students in the Department’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, helps connect them with faculty advisors, oversees curriculum development, and also manages extracurricular programming within the Department. He also teaches courses and conducts research on how rhetoric shapes culture and people’s understanding of various aspects of society, including food and agriculture, public health, citizenship, and policies.

In addition to his position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Dr. Conley has taught courses at universities in China and Singapore. He has published numerous articles and books on the subjects of rhetoric, the politics of culture, and the intersection of materiality and aesthetics as witnessed through the case of food systems as modes of social production. He received his Master of Arts and Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Cultural Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum and electives, and what are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?

[Dr. Conley] We offer a 36-credit program with two tracks—Advanced Communication Research and Community Engagement. Within these two tracks, students have the option to specialize in a wide variety of areas, from rhetoric/public/political discourse to interpersonal/relational/small group. We also offer courses in intercultural communication, new types of media, etc. But in general, students can go into either the Advanced Communication Research track if they want to continue on to a Ph.D. program after graduating from our program, or are interested in taking courses that focus on the history and theories of communication. Or if they want to focus on communication tactics/strategies for more direct industry applications and to impact real world issues and events, they can take the Community Engagement track, which is relatively new. We are very excited about this new track, and are even now still developing new courses for this track to give students ample options.

For the core, regardless of their selected track, students take two theory courses and two methods courses:

  • Survey of Communication Studies: This course gives students an in-depth overview of the different types of communication disciplines, including their history and current applications, as well as how they intersect. Students also learn advanced research methodologies in communication, including how to determine research topics and inquiries, formulate hypotheses, and utilize appropriate methods.
  • Theories of Rhetorical Communication: The foundational theories of communication, their role in communication research, and how they help to explain both communication phenomena and communication strategies and research methods across disciplines.
  • Rhetorical-Critical Research Methods: How to conduct rhetorical analyses and interpret the objectives and efficacy/effects of public discourse. The theories that are central to rhetorical criticism, and the practice of writing original research papers in this area.
  • Empirical Research Methods: The process of and methods for empirical research, including how to design research studies, analyze different types and quantities of data, and critique existing research.

After the core classes, students can take a wide variety of courses that are track specific, as well as electives in areas according to their interests. Classes that are in the Advanced Communication Research track include The Public Sphere, Rhetoric and Public Memory, Rhetoric of Dissent, and Political Communication. Courses that students can take for the Community Engagement track include The Rhetoric of Women’s Rights, Theories of Relational Communication, Conflict Management, Security Discourse, Rhetoric and Everyday Life, and Marital and Family Communication.

Students are also allowed to take up to six credits outside of the Department of Communication, which is helpful for students who want to take several classes in a complementary area such as public policy or affairs, English literature, education, sociology, criminology, environmentalism, etc. One of the great things about the field of communication is that it truly spans all disciplines, and it is literally how information is conveyed, processed, and used to achieve social, economic, political, and health objectives. As a result, our students can find a way to connect their graduate work in communication to nearly any other field.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of UNLV’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program can choose between completing a master’s thesis or a professional paper. Could you please elaborate on these three options, and what they entail?

[Dr. Conley] The main distinction between the Scholarly Research Project and the Thesis is that the thesis is definitely more theoretical and historical/traditional, while the scholarly research project is more professional focused and case-study driven.

I can illustrate this with an example of a thesis and a project of two students whom I advised. I recently had a student write a thesis on “cli-fi” cinema, which is short for climate fiction films—apocalyptic, dystopian, disaster type movies and analyzing these environmental films and their rhetoric. My student argued that these films were seeking to establish a set of communal values for the future of our earth, and used the writings of Kenneth Burke to substantiate her analyses. It was a 150-page project, with a lot of theory and detailed analysis.

Meanwhile, another student of mine completed a professional paper project that looked at community-building in response to an environmental crisis in northern Alberta. She looked at a wildfire that occurred in that region a few years back, and part of her research included analyzing the rhetoric of a book that came out of the crisis. And from this case study she drew conclusions about community and coalition building in response to crisis situations. Another student wrote her professional paper on a specific type of NGO and the particular kinds of communication challenges these non-profits faced. She wrote a 35 page paper that showcased her ability to think through the different problems facing these organizations and how to tackle them. And this might be a great portfolio piece to showcase to a potential employer as it displays critical thinking skills and an understanding of communication concepts that are directly relevant to industry.

For both the thesis and the professional paper, students follow a formal process, and work with the support of an advisor and two committee members. Students submit a prospectus which they defend, and when they submit their final paper they present it to their committee. While the process is similar, the prospectus for the professional paper tends to be shorter, around 10-15 pages, while the thesis prospectus is more commonly 25 pages or so.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in UNLV’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies 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. Conley] When students first enter the program, I am their initial advisor, and I help them select courses that match their career goals and to start thinking about the kinds of projects they will want to do in their second year. All students meet one-on-one with me and with the Department Chair Michael Bruner, to discuss their interests at the beginning of the program, and then we check in with them once or twice more that year to see how they are doing. A lot of advising happens at the beginning of students’ first year, and at the end of that first year is when students start thinking about which faculty member they will want to have as their individual advisor.

Many of our students come into the program basically raring to go, and while that is great, and something we want to see, we also tell them to relax and to take their first eight months in the program to focus on their coursework, the material, and seeing what kinds of questions come out of the classes and projects. Things do change—you might think that you’re interested in this one area, but then you really get into a certain reading, and then you’re off in a different direction.

We have brown bag luncheon sessions roughly once a month, which are professional development and mentoring forums—casual, very pragmatic sessions where we will talk about how to apply to Ph.D. programs, or how to make the most of a professional conference. Sometimes our sessions are inspired by specific problems or questions students are having. And every spring of students’ first year, we host a second orientation brown bag session where we go into choosing advisors, tracks, and exit options so that they have a good sense of how to proceed and tailor their studies in their second year.

As we are a small program, a lot of peer-to-peer mentoring also occurs—our students spend a lot of time together. And even outside of their formal advisor relationship, students are welcome to meet up with professors during office hours and during other times to hone and develop their interests.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for UNLV’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program?

[Dr. Conley] I would say one of the most important things is to research our program, and to get a strong and clear sense of why you want to attend. Know what classes we offer, and know the research expertise of our faculty and why it may appeal to you. We want to know about your interests and your background, and why we would be a good fit for you. We look very carefully at the personal statement, and so I encourage applicants to think of it as a rhetorical exercise: know your audience. Specificity is more powerful than broad general statements, so it’s better to cite specific classes or professors or projects you want to do while in the program. Also, in the personal statement, I encourage students to share their personal narrative, and to give us a sense of their professional background and desired trajectory.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes UNLV’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Conley] The first thing I would note is the fact that we are in the College of Urban Affairs, which is unique and gives our students access to departments that students in other programs would not have access to. Most master’s in communication programs are housed in colleges of liberal arts and sciences, but here at UNLV our program is housed in a college that has partner departments in criminal justice, journalism, media studies, public policy and administration, and social work.

The mandate of our college is to improve the community in supportive, knowledge-driven ways. That is reflected in our Community Engagement track, and our faculty expertise also tends to intersect with social service and community improvement. For example, one of my colleagues is an interpersonal communication scholar who does intensive research on domestic violence, and who works with women’s shelters and other organizations in the community. My own work is in rhetoric and ecology, food waste and food systems, and so I am really interested in sustainability, conservation, etc. We are in a strange but advantageous position, in my opinion, because while communication departments may more traditionally be housed alongside English and philosophy departments, our faculty and our students are housed in an environment where they are being asked and expected to think more immediately about their social surroundings and their environment. And as students can take six credits outside of the Communication Department, they can take classes within the College of Urban Affairs that allow them to investigate in-depth the issues they want to address or improve through their work in communication studies and strategy.

Our Community Engagement track lets our graduate students focus more on policy, local media, environmentalism, criminality, and civic mediation, relative to other programs which may not be as interdisciplinary in nature. What we have been hearing from students is they want more pragmatic, market-driven opportunities, as well as opportunities that connect directly to their investments in social change.

Our students also get great mentorship from our faculty—not just in terms of the formal advising structures we have set up between myself, Dr. Bruner, and the individual faculty advisors students select in their second year, but also in the open-door policy we have where students can talk to any of our faculty members for guidance, connections, and encouragement. I think it is really good for an MA program to be able to offer that kind of intimacy and individualized support. Our students also receive $750 a year for professional development—for travel to conferences, or to do archival research.

The collegial nature of our department is also truly a standout element of our program. We’re always looking to add to and improve our program offerings, and our collaborative culture extends to the College as well, in that all the departments within the College of Urban Affairs are quite eager to build bridges and interdepartmental partnerships, which has led to a lot of new, exciting, and dynamic things in terms of new curriculum offerings, and at this point when we create new classes, we actually talk with different departments in the college about their students’ interests, what we are doing and vice versa, so that we balance out our offerings, broaden our mutual appeal, and better serve our students’ interests.

Thank you, Dr. Conley, for your excellent insight into the University of Nevada’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program!