About Nikita Harris, Ph.D.: Nikita Harris is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at The University of Alabama’s College of Communication & Information Sciences, where she also serves as Graduate Program Coordinator for the Online Master of Arts in Communication Studies. As Program Coordinator, Dr. Harris advises graduate students throughout their enrollment, and supports recruitment and admissions.

Dr. Harris’ research and teaching interests include organizational communication, leadership, and socialization. She teaches graduate courses in group leadership, human communication theory and organizational evaluation & assessment. Prior to her positions at The University of Alabama, Dr. Harris taught courses in communication and leadership at a variety of institutions for higher education, including Auburn University, Texas Southern University, The George Washington University and Columbus State University, where she received the 2009 “Educator of the Year” award. Before entering academia, Dr. Harris worked as a management analyst at the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Dr. Harris earned her Bachelor of Arts in Speech Communication from Clark Atlanta University, and her Master of Arts in Communication Studies from Auburn University. She was a doctoral fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and received her Ph.D. in Organizational Communication Research and Theory from Howard University.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of The University of Alabama’s Online Master of Arts in Communication Studies, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what can students expect to learn in the Organizational Leadership specialization?

[Dr. Harris] Our Online Master of Arts in Communication Studies is a rigorous and academically focused program in communication and organizational leadership. It is completely online and is a great program for working professionals. The foundations students learn are theoretical, with an applied approach to communication and organizational leadership.

Students take core courses in Gender and Political Communication, Human Communication Theory, Relational Communication, Technology, Culture, Human Communication and Communication and Diversity. Through this core, students learn the foundational theories of human communication and social science theory, and about interpersonal communication and relationships, how gender dynamics impact political communication, how technology has mediated cross-cultural and international communication. Students are also required to take Qualitative Research Methods, which concerns data collection and analysis through various graduate-level research methods. Alternatively, they can take the Research Methods course through the Library and Information Sciences program in the College of Communication and Information Sciences.

For their specialization courses in the Organizational Leadership emphasis, students take Conflict and Negotiation, Group Leadership, a seminar in Organizational Communication Theory, and a seminar in Organizational Communication and Organizational Assessment and Intervention. These courses focus on advanced concepts and methods in conflict mediation, small group dynamics, scholarship in organizational communication, current developments in the discipline, and how to assess organizational communication dynamics, campaigns, and challenges.

Our degree program is designed to advance students’ knowledge in communication and organizational leadership. Many of our students are working professionals. Most have been working for at least seven years in diverse industries and professions. Our students are managers, engineers, teachers, attorneys, ministers, as well as people who have backgrounds in communications-related professions such as marketing, public relations, journalism, human resources, etc.

One of the unique aspects of our program is that students can complete a professional project on a topic that relates to their academic interests or professional goals in the area of organizational leadership. The professional project is a great opportunity for students to explore a new area within organizational communication, or to dig deeper into an issue they’ve already encountered in the workplace. The professional project provides students the opportunity to examine and address a real issue that their current company faces by applying what they have learned in the program.

Students who complete the professional project are also required to develop a capstone portfolio, which allows them to pull all of their experiences and all of the applied work into one presentable portfolio that can be used for a job search. Students also have the option of taking comprehensive examinations in lieu of the professional project to complete the program. They take 5 hours of standardized online exams testing their knowledge in the areas of communication theory, applied research methods and the emphasis area in organizational leadership.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could we have some additional information on the professional portfolio requirement that students must fulfill?

[Dr. Harris] The capstone portfolio provides students an opportunity to synthesize all of their work over the course of the program and put it in the larger picture of their professional development. We ask them to complete a number of different reflective assignments that prompt them to look at each one of their program courses–both their theoretical work as well as their applied work—and bring them together to identify themes. And then we ask students to write about how they plan to use this work in the future. It gives the students the opportunity at the end of the program to ask themselves, “Okay, what have I learned, how am I bringing this all together, and how can I best use the knowledge I have acquired through the program to move forward in my career?”

Our program encourages students to approach the study of communication from an interdisciplinary approach, as communication is inherently connected to many other disciplines–all disciplines really, if you think about it, from project management to politics to marketing and human resources. Students graduate from our program understanding communication theory, how it works in the practical world, and how they can take this knowledge to improve systems, groups and organizations. That’s one of the primary learning outcomes of the program. Often what causes organizations to progress or fail is the quality of communication and the leadership. Individuals who understand communication, and have the competencies to assess, diagnose, and implement changes through effective communication are an asset to any organization, system or group.

For example, our course COM 555, which is conflict and negotiation, teaches students valuable skills that relate not only to interpersonal communication, but also to conflict within large organizations and groups. They look at conflict and negotiation across contexts from interpersonal, organizational, and group perspectives. And that helps in terms of leadership, because leaders have to know how to negotiate and manage and move systems through conflict. The course in group leadership teaches students the foundational theories of group dynamics and leadership, which also advances students’ knowledge in communicating effectively across groups. I teach that course. Students actually do a practical project, where they have to identify a group, complete observational reports over 3 weeks, and then analyze and diagnose communication within the group, which includes providing recommendations for how to improve communication within that group.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in The University of Alabama’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program?

[Dr. Harris] At the beginning of the program, students meet with the primary advisor. I have connectional meeting with all of them, and update them on any program changes, upcoming course offerings, and learning opportunities.

The professional project offers students the opportunity to develop mentoring relationships with faculty because the projects require a high level of faculty interaction, which help students feel more engaged and connected in an online degree program.

One of the nice aspects of our online graduate program for students is the class size. Each class has about 12 – 15 students. This small student-to-faculty ratio means that our students can access their professors fairly easily. All professors are available outside of classes for email and virtual chat discussions. Our professors are very committed to our students and helping them succeed in the program.

[MastersinCommunications.com] How can students submit a competitive application to this program?

[Dr. Harris] In their statement of purpose, students should talk about why they’re interested in our program, and what they hope to achieve both during their enrollment and afterwards. They don’t have to have a professional background in communication necessarily, but they do need to demonstrate to us that they are capable of handling the rigors of the program. For admissions, applicants need to meet our minimum GPA requirement of 3.0 and also submit GRE scores. Their cumulative GRE score must be a combined minimum of 300 or 50th percentile or higher on the MAT to be accepted into the program. We accept students year-round.

We accept students from various backgrounds–from political science to engineering to education. Students with strong applications have taken the time to clearly explain their motivations for applying to our graduate program and help us understand how the program will benefit their career and personal aspirations.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes this program unique, and a particularly strong option for students interested in earning a Master of Arts in Communication Studies?

[Dr. Harris] Our faculty members are diverse and committed to students’ success in and outside of the classroom which makes a strong option for students interested in earning a Master of Arts in Communication Studies. Our faculty are actively engaged in teaching, research and service in the communication discipline. The quality of our faculty helps to provide an academically rigorous program that strikes a great balance between giving students a strong foundation in communication theory, along with the knowledge, competencies and skills needed to apply to a wide variety of organizational and professional settings.

One of our curriculum’s strengths is developing student’s critical thinking, writing and research skills through project-based learning. Our courses incorporate heavy discussion, analysis and research writing. The program values student engagement among faculty and their peers. Projects that students are assigned in courses help them apply the concepts they learn, and our professors often give students a great deal of flexibility to be creative in their projects. Students in our program often report satisfaction in being able to immediately apply what they are learning in their courses to their personal and professional lives. They see the value in the program early and are able to benefit from what they are learning as they matriculate through the program.

Our student body is another reason why our program is unique. Our students are geographically diverse. They represent many states and regions throughout the country. The academic, professional, cultural, and geographical diversity of our student body is one of the strengths of the program. Some of the best learning experiences students have in the program are a result of interacting with their classmates, and understanding their diverse perspectives and backgrounds. In this program, everyone learns from each other, including faculty.

Thank you, Dr. Harris, for your excellent insight into The University of Alabama’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies Program!