About Marquita Smith, Ed.D.: Marquita Smith is the Assistant Dean of Graduate Programs at The University of Mississippi’s School of Journalism and New Media. As Assistant Dean, Dr. Smith oversees curriculum development for the graduate degrees offered within the School of Journalism and New Media, ensuring that these programs provide students with the skills to be competitive in the media and marketing industry. In addition, she has spearheaded student advising programs for the Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communication, and works with faculty to continually update the curriculum of this program.

Prior to her position at The University of Mississippi, Dr. Smith was Division Chair for Communication and Fine Arts at John Brown University. Moreover, she has 16 years of industry experience as a journalist, which have informed her work in academia and her stewardship of communication programs at the graduate level. She is an International Center for Journalists Knight Fellow, and a Fulbright Scholar who taught at the University of Ghana. Dr. Smith’s scholarly research focuses on public health and its relationship with media, as well as how communication intersects with diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you elaborate on The University of Mississippi’s Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communication program, its curriculum structure, and how it prepares students for diverse careers in advertising, public relations, corporate communication, public health education, political advocacy communication, and other fields? Why is an integrated approach to marketing so important in today’s media landscape?

[Dr. Marquita Smith] The program is about 10 years old now. It was developed in order to prepare students for the new frontier of strategic communications, and it grew well beyond what we expected. Currently, I have a committee of graduate faculty members who teach courses, and together we look at how the curriculum can continue to serve our students.

In terms of the precise curriculum, students are required to take 36 course credits. We have only six required core classes, and the rest of the hours students can fulfill with electives, which they can take across campus. We allow and encourage students to take electives outside of the School of Journalism. For example, a student who is interested in sports analytics, business development, journalism, or advanced graphic design could craft their own specialty through courses offered throughout the university.

The core courses students take are Principles of IMC, Design and Visual Thinking, Consumer Research and Insights, Consumer/Target Behavior, Brand and Relationship Strategies, and Advanced Integrated Marketing Communication Campaigns. The Principles of IMC course is an introduction to IMC as a field–its inception and history, its significance, and its relation to other disciplines in the workplace. This course ensures that all students, regardless of their background, are on the same page in terms of what IMC is and what it can do for them. The Design and Visual Thinking course delves into the skills and technologies required for visual design, which include Adobe Creative Suite as well as core visual design principles as they apply across different marketing projects.

The Consumer Research and Insights course teaches students the ins and outs of conducting research in the field of IMC, and how to do research that identifies consumer interests and needs. Consumer/Target Behavior is a complementary course in that it teaches students how to analyze different consumer demographics, and how to shape content according to consumer behavior data. In the final required course, Advanced Integrated Marketing Communication Campaigns, students apply all of the theories and skills and methodologies they have learned to design an IMC campaign. In addition to being a structured way for students to flex their comprehensive IMC skills, this course also serves as an assessment to make sure they’re able to independently put their skills together for their final capstone project.

In terms of electives, we let students choose from a wide variety of courses both within the School of Journalism and New Media and outside of it. Students can take courses such as International and Multicultural IMC, Strategic Communication Planning, Creative Development and Direction, Reputation Management, Health Communication, Sports Promotion, Media Leadership, Communications Law, Multimedia Storytelling, Narrative Journalism, Public Opinion and the Mass Media, and Direct and Database Marketing, just to name a few.

Another thing I’d like to call out specifically is about 60 percent of our graduate students are hired as graduate assistants because of their IMC skills. Just about every division on campus seeks out our students, so they’re highly placeable. Even if we have a limited number of assistantships within the School of Journalism and New Media, the School of Nutrition, the Graduate School, the Housing Department, the Applied Sciences, all of the departments and organizations on campus write us asking for our students, because their skills are in high demand. The nature of IMC makes our students highly marketable. The core courses that we teach in consumer behavior, research behavior, visual design including Adobe Illustrator and other functions, and social media marketing equip our students with a little bit of everything.

As for the development of the program, it was and still is highly faculty-driven. Our faculty for the program are constantly looking at the curriculum and comparing it to the needs and gaps in the industry to ensure we are giving students exactly what they need to succeed. We also talk to working professionals and our program advisory board who give us additional insight.

[MastersinCommunications.com] The University of Mississippi’s Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communication program has both online and residential 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. Marquita Smith] We use Blackboard as our learning management system, so all of our wikis and discussion groups are integrated into Blackboard. Some of our professors have online platforms that they use to interact with students as well, such as Slack, Zoom, or social media such as Twitter. Our program utilizes both asynchronous and synchronous instruction, but we leave it up to the professor to determine the modalities they want to use to engage students, and the ratio of asynchronous and synchronous instruction in their courses.

Our online program is geared towards working professionals, and therefore asynchronous is highly prioritized because we want the curriculum to be as flexible as possible so that students can balance between work and school, completing class requirements on their own time, with the exception of due dates. When our professors do incorporate synchronous sessions, we ask them to incorporate them such that students who cannot attend can still view the content later.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of The University of Mississippi’s M.S. in Integrated Marketing Communication program must complete a Capstone Project, consisting of a comprehensive IMC campaign, as their final graduation requirement. Could you elaborate on this project, what it entails, and the faculty support that students receive during their work?

[Dr. Marquita Smith] We let students choose the type of capstone project that will best serve their academic and professional goals. Currently, all of our students are enrolled in capstone or non-thesis options. But students who are interested in pursuing a more academic track can do either a formal thesis or a professional project. As the Assistant Dean, I am students’ first point of contact as they start to think through their project ideas. I also meet with students to help them find chairs for their committees and to identify potential committee members.

For the advanced campaigns course, students work with professional clients, whether it is Coca-Cola or a more local organization. One of the students I’m advising is working with GNC to help them with their marketing campaigns. Other students are working with Uber and Lyft, while still others are working with Facebook and TikTok. I even have a student who is working in the wine and cheese industry in Oxford and thinking about social media and the kinds of returns with content marketing. So, it really runs the whole gamut, from the small local restaurant to the major chain or company, the non-profit to the for-profit setting.

Moreover, we have professors who have worked for diverse companies for decades and who can provide students with expert advice–for example, one of our faculty members worked for Coca Cola more than 20 years. There are all kinds of opportunities for networking and engagement. In fact, for the content marketing course that I’m teaching tomorrow, students’ assignment is to identify a list of companies that need help. This is to get them to think about content marketing and buyer personas and how to identify marketing needs within organizations.

As a professor, I find it fascinating how much marketing platforms and methodologies change from one generation to the next. Many of my students get their information on Instagram now, and that makes me wonder about the kind of content marketing they consume now relative to what I consumed at their age, and what I look at as a consumer now. Our students keep us engaged in terms of thinking about how marketing works in many different ways and is an evolving, living thing. As marketing is mutable, it creates this great interactivity between instructor and student, where each wears the other’s hat all the time. I rely on my students as much as they rely on me to really discuss and parse what resonates with consumers now and why.

For example, in my class the other day, I talked with my students about what creates brand loyalty. I’m a Tide loyalist. Why do I choose Tide no matter whether it’s on sale or not? Some of that is brand loyalty I inherited because my grandmother used Tide. So I’m a generational Tide user. It’s like hypnosis–I go to the store, I try to break up with Tide, I try to get the detergent that is less expensive, I want to try some Gain because it looks like fun and smells really good, but I don’t. When I walk out of the store, I’m holding Tide.

But if I ask my students what their detergent choices are, they aren’t that committed. “We use what’s on sale, or what’s convenient. Whatever my parents or my roommates buy,” they’ll say. It’s an entirely different mindset, and the how of each mindset is fascinating. What is the Jedi mind trick that is operating when I walk into the store, and how does it differ from the impact and power of web and mobile marketing that show consumers an abundance of competing options? If there is loyalty, what builds that loyalty? And what breaks it, even if temporarily?

It’s fascinating talking with my students and learning about how they approach consumer decisions. They’re twirling from product to product. They’re a lot more adventurous, and are really free-flowing with it. Whereas people like me choose a brand and stick to it. Completely different consumer populations.

The funny part of this discussion in my class is that when I flip it on them, so that they’re no longer the consumer but a marketing manager for a product, it becomes stressful for them because they know their personas. They know that there is a lack of brand loyalty among their generation, which makes their work that much harder. But also within that there are untapped opportunities to understand consumer behavior and consumer insights.

We have students look at consumer insights from the qualitative and quantitative sides. Using data analysis to determine how to shape decision-making and support their clients and organization. I come from a traditional journalism background, and was a newspaper editor before transitioning to the academy. And talking with my students about how the power of words is so necessary for content marketing, and how it plays into IMC. You can’t escape it–good writing is essential across all marketing channels. It’s the intersection of disciplines that I feel gives IMC its strength and power.

[MastersinCommunications.com] How is faculty mentorship integrated into The University of Mississippi’s Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communication program, 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. Marquita Smith] I am currently in the process of assembling an advising program as we speak. Our students of course receive guidance from faculty and myself throughout their time in the program, but I’ve been wanting to incorporate an additional layer of support where small groups of students are formally linked with a primary advisor who mentors them. Many of our faculty members have volunteered for this mentorship opportunity, and I am personally getting certified in Cross Cultural Mentoring through the University of Florida, so that I can construct a mentoring program that is culturally competent and coach faculty members to be even better mentors.

[MastersinCommunications.com] How can students who are interested in The University of Mississippi’s Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communication program put forth a competitive application?

[Dr. Marquita Smith] I am constantly talking to students about what the application process looks like. One of the things that I always tell students is that they should coach their references. By which I mean, don’t just ask and then send the link to your references to fill out the form and be hands off from there. Because what we tend to receive back when that is the case is, “Oh, they’re a really nice student. They have good character.” But they don’t tell us if they have the skills necessary to cut it in graduate school. We need references who can speak to your abilities to be challenged academically. We do expect to see creativity in our students, so references who can speak to that, among your other talents, are also great.

Your references shouldn’t give “stick figure” recommendations, with generic descriptions; they should instead tell us why they believe you should be pursuing a higher degree, what you have to offer in the space, what is unique about you. That requires not only choosing the right people to write your references, but also coaching them as I mentioned earlier–make their job easy for them and write an information sheet for them. Tell them, “Here are some things I’d love for you to highlight. Here are some things you can speak to, and why.”

The most important element of the application is, of course, the statement of purpose. We don’t have strict guidelines for what you should say in it, but it must be authentically you, and it should tell us why you want to be here, what you hope to accomplish with our degree. How does the discipline speak to you? How do you plan to engage in it during the program and long afterwards? What can you bring to the industry, and what do you hope or plan to bring to the industry when equipped with the skills our program gives you? Do you have any research ideas, or problems you’d like to solve in the IMC space?

The statement of purpose is really telling us, “Why you? Why here? Why should we be together for the next two years?” One weakness I tend to see in personal statements is the candidates clearly did not do sufficient research, and therefore their personal statement is shallow, at the level of, “It seems like an interesting program; I’ve always been interested in marketing; The University of Mississippi has a great reputation of academic excellence.” But these statements have no real heart or passion. Tell us a compelling story in your personal statement, highlight your strengths and your drive and ambition, while also showing us that you have done your research on us as a program.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes The University of Mississippi’s M.S. in Integrated Marketing Communication program an excellent graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students particularly well for advanced, cutting-edge careers in IMC and media management/leadership?

[Dr. Marquita Smith] The curricular flexibility that we offer our students allows them to really make this degree their own, and to decide where they want to put their efforts. The program is built so that students can explore courses both within and without the School of Journalism and New Media. And with the number of graduate assistantships our students have access to, university-wide, because of their IMC skillset, that offers another layer of professional preparation even as it helps fund students’ education.

Our graduate assistantship program allows students to gain professional experience through outlets on campus–from athletics to university communications and IT–which gives them an excellent competitive advantage in the larger job market. Our program enables students to see themselves and their future selves in current time–that is something that is baked into how the program was designed.

Thank you, Dr. Marquita Smith, for your excellent insight into The University of Mississippi’s Master of Science in IMC program!