About Jordan Soliz, Ph.D.: Jordan Soliz is the Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Communication Studies, where he is also an Associate Professor. As Director of Graduate Studies, he coordinates all aspects of the Department’s graduate program, ranging from recruitment, graduate course scheduling, graduate student reviews, scheduling comprehensive exams, and obtaining funds and support for graduate students, to working with faculty or graduate students with questions they have about mentoring or the program.
Dr. Soliz teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in social identity and communication, family communication, research methods, and some specialized courses (e.g., communication and racial-ethnic identity). These courses reflect his research specialization at the University. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication studies from the University of Kansas in 1997 and 1999, respectively, after which he earned his Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the same institution.
[MastersinCommuncations.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s (UNL) Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what key concepts do students learn in the Interpersonal, Family, & Health Communication concentration and the Rhetoric and Public Culture concentration?
[Dr. Jordan Soliz] Our MA program is a 2-year program in which students specialize in either Interpersonal, Family, & Health Communication or Rhetoric & Public Culture. We do not have a core curriculum as students work with an advisor to identify courses inside and outside of the department that fit their area of inquiry. Our MA program is designed for students who are interested in pursuing a Ph.D. As such, students take courses with Ph.D. students and usually come in with a teaching assistantship as well as receiving support for travel to academic conventions and conferences.
Students come into the program already having selected which specialization they would like to pursue, and within that they really have a great deal of autonomy in choosing what courses comprise that specialization. They are even able to take courses from outside of the department, as long as it is relevant to the course of study that they have determined with their faculty advisor. For example, students in rhetoric and public culture will often take a lot of classes from the English department, while students in interpersonal, family, and health communication will take classes in sociology and psychology.
Typically, we get students who are very focused in what they want to do, and when applying to our program they will call out the scholars they would like to work with, and the nature of the research they wish to conduct. Our student cohort tends to be highly focused, and we respect their ambition and autonomy by letting them craft their own course of study while we serve in a supportive role as faculty advisors and mentors.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on the master’s thesis and comprehensive examination options that students have for their final graduation requirement? What factors should students take into consideration when deciding between these two options?
[Dr. Jordan Soliz] There are two options students have for completing the MA program: thesis and comprehensive exams. The thesis option requires less coursework than the comprehensive examination, as students’ research and work on their thesis counts for course credit. For the thesis, students work with their advisor and supervisory committee to identify the focus of their research inquiry. Students are strongly encouraged to complete a thesis as we believe this provides the experience necessary to move on to independent research as they further their graduate education. As such, the majority of our students complete a thesis, relative to the comprehensive exam option.
If a student decides midway through the program that he or she does not want to complete a thesis, the comprehensive exam is generally a viable option. As we have a smaller program, we are really geared towards people who are interested in pursuing an academic career or a research-oriented career. For the comprehensive examination, students also consult with their advisor and selected committee members to identify the areas that the exam will cover. Students collaborate with their faculty mentors to build a proposal for their exam, which has both oral and written components.
Examples of theses that students have completed in the past include one in which the student investigated intergenerational, health-related conversations between parents, grandparents, and children/grandchildren. We have another student doing her thesis on family socialization of ethnic racial identity. Other students have gone the route of investigating different forms of rhetoric and their impact on society. For instance, one of our students conducted research on Google Earth, and wrote a critique of how Google Earth has altered how people frame and see the world, in a way that can be quite problematic. It was called “Mapping Injustice: The World is Witness, Place-Framing, and the Politics of Viewing on Google Earth.”
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in UNL’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. Jordan Soliz] Students identify an advisor and committee early in the program. In addition to approving and advising on courses and other scholarly activities, the advisor and committee often identify opportunities on campus or with academic associations that may be beneficial for the student. From the beginning of students’ tenure in the program, their advisor and committee sit down with them and work with them on a proposal for the courses they will take. It is very student-driven, in that students often come to faculty with a concrete idea of what they are interested in, and what classes they want to take (and even what their desired thesis topic is). The advisor and committee work with students to refine their program of study, and approve it. As students progress through the program, if they want to make changes to their program of study, they simply consult with their advisor and get approval from their committee to change course. The committee supports students throughout their work on their thesis/project or their preparation for their comprehensive examination.
The Office of Graduate Studies offers a variety of general professional development workshops for graduate students. However, the department also offers numerous workshops (e.g., publishing, putting together a teaching portfolio, identifying research programs, etc.) catered to our students and disciplinary conventions.
And apart from the robust formal mentorship systems we have in place, a lot of informal mentoring also happens. Faculty members often get writing groups together for students, which are in effect a support group for writing. And a lot of mentorship happens outside of the classroom, as faculty encourage students to submit class projects to conferences and journals and help students review drafts for conference submissions. Our professors also guide students through the process of looking at and applying for Ph.D. programs. We have a collegial culture here where students are held accountable and stay on track with the help of extracurricular writing workshop groups, engaged and accessible faculty, and a community of highly motivated and focused peers.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for UNL’s program?
[Dr. Jordan Soliz] The advice I give to all students is start talking to faculty early in the process. When the graduate committee reviews your materials, at least one person on the committee should recognize your name and know about your interest in the program. This is not only important for the faculty in terms of making decisions. It also allows students to determine if the program is a good fit for them. The first step is to contact the Director of Graduate Studies. After learning about your interests, I will put you in contact with relevant faculty and continue a dialogue about our program.
For example, I will sometimes get a call from a prospective student who tells me, “I want to come to your program because I need a master’s program for my job.” And the first thing I’ll do is say, “Ok, great. Now tell me a little about your interests.” I’ll send them documents about our two different specializations: interpersonal family health or public culture. And I’ll tell them, “Here are our areas. Find out what you’re interested in. Find out what area speaks to you, whom you might want to work with, what you want to learn more about, and then let’s continue this conversation.” As opposed to other programs that might accept more widely and indiscriminately, our program is more selective in that we really try and choose students who would thrive in our program, given our faculty’s expertise and the nature of our student community. I’d estimate that over 90 percent of our master’s students go on to get a Ph.D., and so it is important to us that applicants demonstrate their readiness for rigorous research and academic inquiry.
In their application, we want students to identify their desired focus in our program—the more specific, the better. Within our two concentration options of Interpersonal, Family, & Health Communication or Rhetoric & Public Culture, students can generally align their classes and research interests with one or more of three main areas: identity and difference, civic engagement, and health and well-being. Within these three categories, students can study specific areas such as rhetoric and public culture or interpersonal communication in family health. In their personal statement, the student could explain how they want to explore the role of family in decision-making when a person is dealing with a chronic illness, or their interest in interfaith or multiethnic families and how differences are discussed and negotiated along different lines within a family. Other students might want to critique the way that media impacts civic engagement, or how media represents “otherness” or marginalized communities, and how that then connects to people’s sense of identity and difference. So when students apply to our program, we want them to touch upon one or more of our three main areas, and to define or position themselves in relation to them in a way that demonstrates their drive and focus.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes UNL’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students for careers in communication research and instruction, as well as roles in industry?
[Dr. Jordan Soliz] Our graduate program is small which allows for more individual attention and scholarly development. Most of our advisors have weekly meetings with students to talk about their scholarly development. While a student may only be one of two to three MA students in a program of 20 graduate students, the attention you receive will be beneficial in preparation for Ph.D. coursework and requirements. While we have students enter non-academic professions often based on the research and analytical skills developed in the program, most go on to Ph.D. programs.
One of our biggest strengths is the fact that our MA students are immersed in a program where they can learn from top Ph.D. students. As our program is geared towards students interested in doctoral studies, I feel that this is instrumental. One thing I have noticed is that when we accept Ph.D. students into our doctoral program, the MA students who come from programs that only have a terminal MA have a much longer adjustment period relative to students who come from a communication department that offers both Ph.D. and MA programs, and have classes where both student groups interact closely. Classroom discussions in our program take on a very high level, academically speaking. And our MA students rise to the occasion and are extremely well prepared for their future goals as a result. They know how to operate in doctoral seminars, how to write excellent research papers and submit to journals. They understand how to prepare for conference presentations.
For example, I currently have three Ph.D. advisees and one Master’s advisee. We meet weekly as a group, and then I have weekly meetings with each of them individually. My master’s student is collaborating with me on several projects, and she is also collaborating with another Ph.D. student on another research project. And that is the norm for our master’s student group. We support them in pushing their boundaries into doctoral-level work well before they graduate.
Now, with that being said, it can be kind of overwhelming at first for new master’s students. They might think, “I was just an undergraduate! How can I go straight into working with Ph.D. students?” But we select students whom we believe can handle that kind of work. Additionally, our Ph.D. students are incredible in that they serve as informal mentors to our master’s students as well. As a small department, everyone pretty much knows each other by name, and offers informal support even outside of classes and formal advising structures.
Finally, I would say that our graduate assistantship program is also a compelling reason to attend our program. As a small department, we are able to devote a lot of our resources to our small student body. Typically, we only accept students if we can also give them a teaching assistantship or a research assistantship. There are rare cases where a student has other professional work that prevents them from taking on an assistantship, but in general we feel it is an important part of the graduate education experience. For students, it is a win-win in that they get funding for their education and exemplar training in higher education instruction and advanced research. And throughout their assistantship work, students have our intensive support and mentorship: each semester, we evaluate students’ teaching and/or research progress, the same as we do for our Ph.D. students. And if issues come up, we let them know and work with them to help them. For our master’s level teaching assistants, we also make sure to ease them into the teaching process with standardized courses where they have a lot of structure and supervision.
All of the aforementioned support, mentorship, and financial resources are possible because we grow our program very carefully and intentionally. We are growing as a program, but we make sure that we grow for the right reasons, and at a pace that allows us to commit to everything we feel our students deserve, from the one-on-one mentorship to the graduate assistantships and research opportunities we provide.
Thank you, Dr. Soliz, for your insight into the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies!