About Keith Richards, Ph.D.: Keith Richards is an Associate Professor and the Acting Graduate Program Director for East Carolina University’s School of Communication. As Director, Dr. Richards oversees curriculum developments for ECU’s Master of Arts in Communication, and advises all students coming into the program. In addition, he teaches courses in interpersonal health communication, communication in health organizations, and business and professional communication.
Dr. Richards’ research specializes in message design and information seeking in health communication contexts, and his work has been widely published in journals such as the Journal of Consumer Health on the Internet, International Journal of Communication and Health, Communication Research Reports, and The Journal of Effective Teaching. He has presented at numerous conferences, including the National Communication Association Conference, the Kentucky Conference on Health Communication, and the Southern States Communication Association Conference.
Dr. Richards received his Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from Kent State University, and earned both his Master of Arts and Ph.D. in Communication Sciences from the University of Connecticut.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you elaborate on East Carolina University’s Master of Arts in Communication, its curriculum structure, and how it prepares students for diverse careers in internal and external-facing communication strategy?
[Dr. Keith Richards] Our Master of Arts in Communication program is comprised of 30 course credits, and students can choose from our longstanding health communication concentration, and our new strategic communication concentration. Students of both concentrations take the same two required core courses in communication theory and research methods, after which the curriculum for both tracks is quite flexible. Students of the strategic communication concentration can take courses in social influence, risk and crisis communication, and organizational communication, among other topics. Health communication students can take courses that teach them how to engage community members in health communication and education, design health communication campaigns, and optimize interpersonal and intercultural communication in healthcare contexts. Students have a great degree of freedom to craft their own course of study within either concentration.
To prepare themselves for diverse job opportunities, students should explore a variety of areas. We are here to guide students who are coming from different backgrounds with various interests along their path. Any of our classes can allow them to take their career in a direction that they choose. For example, students will create messaging on a topic of interest to them in our Strategic Communication course, using the theories and tools we provide to them to analyze this type of information. We also help students decide how to improve their projects and where to collect more information.
I think a lot of us who attended graduate school experienced writing papers that we sent to our professors to grade and provide feedback. An important element of our program is the sharing amongst the students. Students share their ideas and projects with each other in the classrooms. We have a lot of students who are working professionals and they are using this program to give themselves a leg up in their career, whether at their current employer or looking for that next opportunity. We do a lot of peer feedback where students see what other people are working on and understand that there are things they never considered before. As an instructor, I learn things from students all the time because they have an interest in something that is outside of my normal range of focus.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How are the health communication and the strategic communication concentrations distinct? And is there sharing of projects in between concentrations or are students siloed in their own concentration bubble?
[Dr. Keith Richards] The concentrations are different initially in that one of them is specifically focused on health-related topics, and the other one is focused on applied strategic communication. However, there is crossover every semester. We have a course in health communication campaigns, which is a potential core course for both the strategic communication students and the health communication students.
Students coming with different perspectives due to their concentrations add to the richness of the course. Some students are really focused on a health track. The other students are looking at the strategic communication track. There is overlap, and we really welcome that in our classrooms. As professors, we don’t necessarily know which concentration the student is coming from, which helps us because we are looking at everybody individually – meaning that we tell students what the course’s goals are and then students can take it in the direction that they really want to.
There is distinction amongst some of the core courses, but we absolutely encourage overlap between the concentrations because at the end of the day students are getting a Master’s in Communication. Although the concentrations are different, the end goal is to become competent communicators who can share information with whomever our target audience is. Students need to be flexible in what they are studying and be able to apply it to a variety of topics.
[MastersinCommunications.com] East Carolina University’s Master of Arts in Communication has both online and on-campus options. What technologies and learning management system does the online program use to create an ideal learning environment for its students? Does the online program use synchronous instruction, asynchronous instruction, or both?
[Dr. Keith Richards] Almost all of our students are going to be taking online classes at some point in time. This has been determined by our population who said, “I want to be flexible whether I’m on campus, at work, or with my family.” Our online classes are mainly asynchronous using learning management systems and technologies like Canvas. We also have meetings on Teams or WebEx when students want to engage with each other or engage with the faculty in a more real-time environment. The phone is always an option too.
We have a lot of people who travel for work, and they might call when they are on the road to check in and ask questions about a project that they are working on in their classes. Every semester, we try to have at least one synchronous class so that those students who are attending from a distance can interact with our on-campus students in that real-time setting.
We will have students in our classroom on campus while others log in through WebEx or Teams to join, whichever the faculty member prefers based on the classroom that they are in and the technology that they are most comfortable with. These are some of the ways that we try to keep everybody engaged in the classes. We are trying to meet the students where they are. If they tell us they want more synchronous classes, that’s what we are going to try and do. It just varies each year based on who is applying and whether they can come to campus and be here with us in person, or if they have other things going on that make it easier for them to participate from a distance.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Can students mix on campus and online to make a hybrid program?
[Dr. Keith Richards] Most of our students are doing a hybrid option, whether that is just for convenience or based on preference. We have some students who will take classes on campus for a year, and then they will get a full-time job and finish the remaining classes from a distance. We try to be as flexible as we can to accommodate students and to help them achieve their individual goals.
We have a lot of people who are working professionals, and they might take one or two classes a semester. They might take one class over the summer. It may take them a little bit longer, but the ability to complete the degree online has really been something that they value. We want to help our students. We are here to learn and grow right alongside them, no matter whether that’s in person, synchronously, or in asynchronous online courses.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of East Carolina University’s Master of Arts in Communication can choose between a thesis and an applied communication capstone. Could you elaborate on both of these options, what each entails, and the faculty support students receive during their work on each?
[Dr. Keith Richards] Our thesis is the standard thesis that you think of when you think of graduate school. It is an independently created project that the student completes under the guidance of a faculty member and their committee. Students analyze data that they gather and write it up as that standard report. Students who do the thesis tend to take a year to complete it.
We have fewer students who choose the thesis track, but some students have looked at things like ethnography, dialogue intervention, using theater to expose adolescent reproductive health issues in Kenya, breaking barriers in provider patient relationships, and looking at intercultural communication competence among nursing students. Some health-related topics included stigma and disclosures, the health communication of gay and bisexual college males, and uses of improvisational musical performance to communicate with children on the topic of bullying. These are unique topics and individualized to the student who is working on them. We don’t have any strategic communication theses yet because the strategic communication concentration just launched in the Fall of 2021.
Our Applied Communication Capstone comes in and replaces the comprehensive exams that we had been using to satisfy the end of the program requirement. The faculty said while our comprehensive exams are okay – we test students on theory, research and special topics – we really wanted students to leave our program with something tangible that they could show to an employer and say, “I completed this work.” The applied communication capstone is an opportunity for students to take what they have learned throughout the program and apply it to something that they are working on.
The topics vary every semester based on students’ interests and where they want to take it. This semester, we have students working on a climate change website, and others who are designing a curriculum for health communication at a community college. Other students are creating campaign materials related to addiction resources. Another example is a group of students who chose boater safety as a topic because they recognized that many boaters are adult males who do not wear a life preserver, and the dangers associated with boating accidents in eastern North Carolina where we have people recreationally boating in the ocean and in rivers.
Thus, topics run the gamut from A to Z. We really want students to come out of this capstone class with something that they could show somebody else and say, “I’ve demonstrated these skills: writing, research, design, creation,” whatever it is based on their interests.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For the capstone project, do students have a faculty committee, or do they have more of a supportive capstone class environment where one instructor mentors every student and students get group feedback?
[Dr. Keith Richards] It is a group classroom setting where one faculty member is helping to shepherd the students through this process in any given semester. Students also work together. At the end of the semester, we have a presentation night where students present the work that they did that semester. We invite the faculty, but we particularly invite other students who are in the program so they can see the types of projects that people are doing in this class to spark them to think, “Okay, I see what’s expected of me in this class. Here’s what I think I could do with this.”
In all of our classes leading up to the capstone course, students might write a proposal. They might work on a sample campaign. We encourage them to think about each of these classes and how they might create something that they could build upon for their capstone project. Some students are going to start off completely new. They are going to say, “It’s a capstone. I’m going to come up with something brand-new this semester.” Other students are going to say, “I’ve been working on this idea in my campaigns or in my social influence class, and I’m going to build upon this project and really flesh it out during that capstone time.”
We have 15 students who are writing on 15 wildly different topics and we are saying, “How can I best help you?” It is definitely time-consuming for the faculty, but it’s rewarding because everybody comes out at the end and they’re satisfied with their end product.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is faculty mentorship integrated into East Carolina University’s Master of Arts in Communication, and what advice do you have for students in terms of making the most of the mentorship opportunities and support systems available to them?
[Dr. Keith Richards] The graduate program director is the advisor for every student who comes in. Currently, I advise all of our graduate students. At the beginning of and throughout the semester, we will have some townhalls where everyone can engage. There is also individual one-on-one advising when students choose courses for the upcoming semesters, but it happens at a variety of other times. I have Teams meetings every week with students to check in and see how things are going. Students also reach out about how class is going or a project they are working on. This is one way that we integrate mentorship and advising.
We also have students who are graduate assistants. These students are paid for their work throughout the semester. They are assigned an individual supervisor, but the graduate program director is also helping to supervise them. Just today I was talking with a faculty member who has a teaching assistant who is really engaged and excited about the class. This faculty member is advising the teaching assistant on how to improve his/her pedagogy and take the lead on some class projects. We see a lot of our mentorship flourish when a teaching or research assistant creates a project with a faculty member, working side-by-side rather than the faculty member directing them.
Most of our classes are between 10 and 20 students, and we see students engage and connect with different faculty members. Students go to them and say, “Hey, I had you in this class. Here are some questions I have. How can you help me?” Our faculty members are always encouraging students to come to their office hours. We have set office hours as a university guideline, but all of our faculty members are very flexible. A lot of them are giving out their phone and Google Voice numbers so students can reach out to them. Some of our faculty go to students and say, “Hey, I have this job opportunity locally that somebody shared. Is this of interest to anybody?” We try to do our best to connect with our students and make sure that they know we are here for them every step of the way.
Another awesome mentorship opportunity is our study abroad trips. While the pandemic and current political events in Europe have necessitated that we cancel this year’s summer trip, we hope to revive our study abroad program soon, as students who go on our trips forge a strong relationship with our faculty members who lead those study abroad experiences.
These are some of the ways in which students engage with us and we engage with them. We try to keep an open door policy even if it is virtually to show that we are here and we are ready to talk with you. A lot of mentorship happens towards the end of students’ time here when they are thinking about what they want to do for their profession. Students want advice from faculty members on their resume, cover letter, and contacts in the job market.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How common are the assistantships and what is the application process like for students?
[Dr. Keith Richards] Our assistantships are always based on budget, as many things are at the university. We offer as many as we can. I believe this semester we have seven to eight graduate assistants. They work in a variety of fields. Some of them are teaching assistants. Some are research assistants. We have a social media liaison who helps with our website and social media. We have a speech communication center on campus, and some of our students work there for us.
The application process is really simple. In your statement of purpose, you simply indicate, “Hey, I’m interested in a graduate assistantship.” You may be interested in either research or teaching, or you may be interested in all sorts of things. We only ask that students include what their interests are in the application. These are then awarded on a competitive basis. As qualified applicants apply, we extend those awards until they are gone.
It is important to apply early and make it known that the assistantship is something that you are interested in. We tend to give priority for these to students who are on campus because they help with our on-campus classes and interact with our undergraduate students. We do occasionally have some assistantships that are able to be fulfilled through distance education.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How can students who are interested in the East Carolina University’s Master of Arts in Communication put forth a competitive application?
[Dr. Keith Richards] Your statement of purpose is one of the most important components of a competitive application. Everyone on the committee is going to read it and take it into consideration. The statement of purpose is not only what you have done but what you think you could do. Why would you be successful in a graduate program? What is it that is unique about you that would add to the richness of our classes? We think it is important to recognize why a student wants to be here and what the student brings to the table. We have lots of people who are interested in our program, so you want to do your best to talk about yourself, to differentiate yourself, and to introduce yourself to us.
GPA is also important. If your GPA isn’t the greatest, it is something you can address in your statement of purpose. We often have individuals who come from an undergraduate program where they decided that, “Nursing wasn’t for me. I didn’t do well in those classes, but I moved on.” This is completely okay. You just need to let us know what happened. Other times there are life events that happen, and we want you to help us understand you.
Your letters of recommendation are very important as well. We ask that you do your best to get them from faculty members. Sometimes you have been out of school for 10 or more years, and you don’t have any faculty members who can speak to your academic success. This is completely fine. Instead, look to a boss, a manager, or someone who can really speak about your work ethic and how you might benefit from this program.
Finally, we consider your resume. Lots of times your work experience can make up for a not very successful undergraduate degree. Your work experience tells us that you have been successful in the corporate world or whatever field you may be in. This also helps us to see you as someone whom we think is going to be successful in our program.
Whether it is our program or another program, we want to make sure you are finding the best fit for you. So, the more information you include, the easier it is going to be for us to understand who you are as an applicant.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How diverse is each student cohort, and how does the program serve each of their individual needs so well?
[Dr. Keith Richards] Our cohorts differ drastically from one semester to another. The number of students varies between 20 to 30. We offer rolling admissions. This summer we might have 10 students start. We might have 15 or 20 start in the fall, and we might have another 15 start in the spring. One semester, we may have all students who want to be on campus. The next semester we may have some students who are 50-60 years old and working full-time, upper management at an important occupation. It really varies every semester in what we are doing.
We are doing more advertising about our strategic communication concentration, which has really seen a dramatic rise. Our first cohort had 15 students in it, and we hardly had time to advertise it because it was so new. We saw an expansion in all of our programs but particularly in the strategic communication concentration. We try our best to plan for that, but with rolling admission, we never know who is interested in it, when they might want to come, and how many classes they might want to take. We are here to go with the flow based on whoever comes and support them the best that we can.
I think the thing that really helps us to serve all of our students is that we focus on some core aspects, such as writing. All of our classes are writing-intensive. We feel, myself included, that everyone can always improve upon their writing. It doesn’t really matter where you are coming from because we think the ability to communicate well, especially in a written format, is something that we all can improve upon and something we all use in our daily lives. I think this is something that helps us whenever we are attracting people who don’t necessarily have a strong communication background. They are coming from other places, but they see the how important it is to be able to write and to share information effectively once in the working world.
Another thing that we are focusing on is how can we take important information, distill it, and get it out there to the people who need this information. It is great to be able to read research, but we want to be able to take that information and figure out how we can best relay it to others. At the core of it, we are a communication master’s program where we are working on becoming competent communicators who are able to share information. We feel as though this is something that transcends all careers.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes East Carolina University’s Master of Arts in Communication an excellent graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students particularly well for advanced, cutting-edge careers in strategic and/or health communication?
[Dr. Keith Richards] I think one of the things that our program really presents is flexibility in both the timing and the structure of the program. For example, you can take one or three classes a semester, on campus or at a distance. I think the other thing that helps our students is the individual paths they can take within each of their classes.
I teach a course in interpersonal and health communication. I’m not assigning anyone a particular topic. Everyone is choosing something that they think relates to interpersonal and health communication, and they are running with that. I’m just there to support and guide them along the way. I think that the ability to find a topic you are interested in and to really pursue it is one of the best aspects of any graduate program.
I think students get excited thinking that, “Hey, I’m interested in this. It’s not a chore. It’s not a labor to read these journal articles, to write about it, and to share with my classmates.” This helps to distinguish our program. We have had a number of students go through our program, and all of them are really happy with how it is going. We always do our best to reach out to those students to ask what they liked about the program. What could we improve on? How can we better meet your needs?
We started off with just a health communication concentration, and then we saw many enquiries where students were asking for something else. Could we have something more applied? Something more general? So, we reached out to our master’s program and undergraduate program alumni. We looked at the landscape in eastern North Carolina and the whole state to determine what is missing. What would our students really benefit from? How’s the job market looking?
This is how we came up with our strategic communication program, and I think this is an example of how we are always trying to meet the needs of our students. We take feedback from them and try to put that into practice. We had a lot of students say, “I’m interested in social media.” We then created a social media course which will be offered for the first time this coming fall.
We design our program by determining what our students’ needs are and how to best meet them so students can be successful. We want students to be really satisfied with the program and be able to use the skills that they created for themselves in this program in the future inside and outside of school.
[MastersinCommunications.com] East Carolina University also offers a Graduate Certificate in Health Communication. Could you elaborate on this graduate certificate, its curriculum structure and learning outcomes, and how its students are distinct from students who enroll in the MA in Communication program?
[Dr. Keith Richards] For our certificate program, our students take health communication-specific classes alongside our MA students. Our faculty are generally not aware if an individual is a certificate student or not. Regardless, we are here to serve them, so this attracts a variety of people. Some of them are in the health field and are looking for some specialization in health communication. Others want continuing education because they are moving into a new role where they think this would be something useful.
Our certificate is four classes, totaling 12 credits. We also offer it to other students at East Carolina University, so anyone in a graduate program can get it whether they are in a master’s or Ph.D. program. Some of the students who are in other graduate studies programs on campus are looking for electives. The certificate could be beneficial for them in their chosen field. They could be studying nursing or public health and want some electives.
Another population of students are interested in graduate school but aren’t 100 percent sure if they want to enroll in a master’s program. In this case, they will apply to our certificate program and take a couple classes. Generally, the students who are in our certificate program apply for the master’s program. All of the classes that they take in the certificate program transfer to the master’s program. So, the certificate program is a good way for students to test out the courses because sometimes they are unsure if they really want to pursue a 30-credit hour program. They might only want a certificate, which is something that is nice on their resume. It helps give them a potential advantage in the job market by having the specialized skills needed for their current career or their current education.
Any of our classes that have that the health communication designation are available to our certificate students. Generally, most of those students prefer the distance education option because it fits better with their schedule, whether they are working professionals or at another area on campus. While the online environment is flexible for them, they are welcome to take our on campus in-person classes as well or the synchronous classes.
Thank you, Dr. Richards, for your excellent insight into East Carolina University’s Master of Arts in Communication program!