About Dr. Robert DeChaine, Ph.D.: Robert DeChaine is the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles , where he also teaches courses as a Professor. As Director, Dr. DeChaine oversees student advising, recruitment, admissions, and curriculum development. He teaches courses in rhetorical studies, cultural studies, globalization, critical pedagogy, immigration and border studies, human rights, and social movements. In 2014, he received the California State University, Los Angeles Outstanding Professor Award.

Dr. DeChaine has also published widely in his areas of communication research, which include communication and human rights, citizenship, community formation, and non-profit work. In 2005, he published the book Global Humanitarianism: NGOs and the Crafting of Community, and he was the editor for Border Rhetorics: Citizenship and Identity on the U.S.-Mexico Frontier. His research has been published in journals such as Cultural Studies, Text and Performance Quarterly, the Western Journal of Communication, the Journal of Communication Inquiry, Popular Music and Society, and the Quarterly Journal of Speech. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the National Communication Association’s journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies.

Dr. DeChaine earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication from California State University, San Bernardino in 1994. He subsequently earned his Master of Arts degree in Communication from California State University, Los Angeles in 1996, and his Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from Claremont Graduate University in 2001.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of California State University, Los Angeles’ Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?

[Dr. DeChaine] If I were going to define it simply, I think what we offer is a broad-based, generalist program of advanced study in human communication. We hope to stress skills and understandings of both theoretical and methodological approaches to communication in terms of processes and practices. We also hope to offer opportunities for in-depth exploration of the variety of subfields in communication. Just to name a few, we offer advanced courses in areas such as rhetoric and communication theory, organizational studies, public relations and strategic communication, institutional communication, intercultural identities and environments, national and international public discourse, health communication, cultural studies and the rhetoric of social movements, citizenship and communication for social justice, and family and interpersonal relationships. I’m sure I am leaving out a few, but those are some areas of concentration and also seminars that we regularly offer in our program.

Our students can expect to devote their first year of the two-year program specifically to the study of theories and methodologies of communication, both in terms of humanistic approaches and social scientific approaches, and utilizing both qualitative and quantitative perspectives in their research. By the end of their first year, we want students to have a baseline understanding of communication theory and dynamics that they share as a cohort. In their second year, they learn how to apply this material to make good arguments for themselves in the job market, whether they go on for teaching careers or for nonteaching careers. Students take five core seminars in the program:

  • Quantitative Communication Research Methods: How to design, implement, and analyze the results of quantitative research studies. Students explore research methods such as descriptive and inferential statistics, sampling, and experimental, comparative, and correlational study designs.
  • Qualitative and Rhetorical Research Methods: The core qualitative research methodologies and their applications in designing, implementing, and evaluating qualitative studies. Students learn different qualitative approaches, including ethnography, case studies, phenomenology, and narrative analysis.
  • Theories of Communication: Social Sciences: The foundations of graduate research for theoretical perspectives in communication, incorporating new developments in the field.
  • Theories of Communication: Humanities: A broad survey of humanities-based communication theories, including how communication intersects with social, cultural, and political contexts, and how communication theory has evolved throughout history to the present day.
  • Instructional Communication: Foundational and advanced theories of instructional communication and their applications in higher education.

Through the core courses, we want students to have a strong theoretical and methodological foundation so that they can make good decisions about what specific areas in communication interest them. And in their second year of the program, they dig into those areas through the electives we offer. That is the larger conceptual and structural aspiration that we have for our program: empowering students with a broad and deep understanding of the foundational concepts in communication theory, research, and strategy, which they can then apply to specialized studies. Examples of electives in our program include Language and Communication Behavior; Theories of Mass Media; International Public Discourse; Organizational Communication; and Rhetoric, Citizenship, and Social Change.

We are very thoughtful about whom we hire to build our faculty team, and we have expert teachers and widely published scholars in a variety of fields. We encourage students to look at our Department website to read our faculty profiles, including their research areas of interest and expertise, and the classes they teach.

We are also always working to make additions to our program and update our curriculum offerings to reflect the times and where the jobs are. We were just able to hire two senior scholars, which we are very excited about, and we are also building an undergrad program in health communication that will help set the foundation for our program in health communication at the graduate level.

We know that a lot of master’s programs have specializations or they have reputations for going deep in a particular concentration of communication. For example, some universities have communication programs specifically in interpersonal communication or others that specialize in intercultural communication or conflict resolution. In designing our program, we made a deliberate choice to stay generalist. We want students to be able to have a balance of general skills and understandings of communication, and then more specialized directions that they can choose to pursue in the program. This gives them the choices and the flexibility to explore multiple areas of communication.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of Cal State LA’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program can choose between completing a thesis and taking a comprehensive examination. Could you elaborate on both of these options, and what they entail?

[Dr. DeChaine] At the end of their first year, students go through a process called Advancement to Candidacy, and this entails writing a couple of brief essays that are distributed to all of the faculty. It is the faculty’s time to evaluate where the students are at, as well as a time for the students to think about where they are at and where they want to go for the remainder of the program. In the essays that they write, students talk about what they think they have gained so far in the program, and where they think that is going to take them. We also ask them to write about what they would like to do for their culminating experience.

To that end, we provide two options for our students. One of them is a series of comprehensive exams that students take at the end of the program, and the other is a thesis project. And based on which of those culminating experiences they select, we try to direct them towards particular faculty that can help them to define a subject area for a thesis, and professors who might become the chair of their committee. We work with students one-on-one to try to help them choose the members of their committee that would best serve their project, and provide the kinds of expertise that they are going to need to write about the subject they want to investigate.

For the students that choose the comprehensive exam option, we also provide them with an orientation and a series of colloquia that help them to know what to expect throughout each stage of the process, from preparing and reviewing for the exams, to taking the exams, and then afterward, preparing for the oral sections of the examination.

The comprehensive exams consist of two components. There is the first written component, and if the student succeeds in the written portion, they go on to an oral defense of their answers. So it is an advanced form of comprehensive exams, similar to what many doctoral programs do in the qualifying exams. All of this is to say that we are really rigorous in our expectations of students, but it is because we want our students to come out of our program equipped to do whatever they want to do with their degree, including doctoral-level studies.

The written exam itself is comprised of three components. The first is a general exam in humanities research and criticism, and the second exam is a general exam in social scientific research and theory. The third exam is in a specialization within communication studies that the students choose, and which aligns with their specific field of study in our program. For each of the exams, we put together a three-person committee made up of faculty in our department who are experts in those fields, who formulate these questions and then also serve on the committee for the students’ oral defenses.

Students who elect to do a thesis have a lot of flexibility in what they can research. Some students write social scientific analyses, and others undertake more humanistic analyses. Some of our students write mixed methods theses. In terms of the topics, many of our students decide to pursue practical questions about education and the educational process. Our program is in the heart of L.A. in a working-class neighborhood. The majority of our students, about 70 percent, are Latino and Latina. Many of them are bilingual and the first people in their families to go to college, and that presents particular challenges for instruction. A lot of our students end up writing about some of the cultural, structural, and institutional challenges of teaching and learning on a campus like ours.

Students also tend to choose topics that align with our faculty’s expertise, which spans a lot of interesting issues in communication that intersect with sociocultural, economic, and political topics. We have had students research and write about issues of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, citizenship, national identity, power, privilege, and ideology. Many of their chosen topics and questions have to do with social categories and the way that people negotiate them in their lives.

A lot of our students also engage in media, and social media especially, in their studies for sites. For example, one of our recent graduates developed a social scientific study of people who witness public fights and videotape them, and then post them on social media but do not intervene in a physical way in the fights. The study examined what the social and cultural implications are of being a bystander to a violent act and being a documentarian of that act. That was a fascinating study.

Students can also study different forms of art and performance and how they are represented in media. One student whose project I oversaw as chair was the world whistling champion, and she wanted to organize a globalized whistling movement to recuperate whistling as an art form. Her argument in her thesis was that whistling has been disparaged and has devolved into something that people casually do in the shower. She wanted to argue that it is something worthy not just of performance, but also of study as well. That was a fascinating thesis.

When advising students on which final graduation requirement to choose, we really do not privilege one over the other. Both options involve a lot of work in different ways to prepare for and succeed in. And each option has a different purpose. If our students are going on to doctoral study, we usually encourage them to go towards the thesis track. But we also impress upon people who want to write a thesis the responsibility of being a good researcher and having strong writing skills. Students also need to have a passion and an interest in doing that work, because research can be tough and frustrating, and you need to know that you enjoy the process of it.

On the comprehensive examinations side, there are good practical reasons for doing them. A lot of our students who go on to be community college instructors feel that it is better to have a really broad mastery of a number of subject areas, and comprehensive exams and the process students undergo to prepare for them give students strong evidence to make a good argument for being hired as an instructor in a communication studies department. And in the private sector, exams help our students to think about the value of critical reading, critical thinking, and critical writing. The exams can help them to make strong, effective arguments in any number of jobs in nonteaching areas.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in California State University, Los Angeles’ Master of Arts in Communication Studies program? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students, and how can they make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program?

[Dr. DeChaine] Mentoring is extremely important to us, and we really try to make it happen both inside and outside the classroom for our students. Faculty work with students very closely in both the coursework and in their independent research projects. In fact, I would say that we consider mentoring students to be one of the most important things that we can do for our students in the program. We want to make sure that we understand what their goals are so that we can best serve them. Some of that is articulated in their personal statement, but we understand that this can evolve during their time in the program, and I as the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department have one-on-one meetings with students when they first join the program, where I learn their interests and help them to navigate their program of study.

That said, where students often clarify their goals is through their classes, where they identify topics that particularly interest them or connect with a professor whose research fascinates them. We have an open-door policy–and this goes for all faculty members and not just myself–that students can always come in and ask us about any questions they have about the process of moving through our program. We also offer extracurricular colloquia that delve into a particular topic, or focus on key skills. For instance, this year we offered a colloquium on how to write a good literature review. And we recently had another colloquium on next steps after your master’s degree. We invited alumni from our program who have had success in getting jobs both in teaching and in the private sector who shared their experiences. We covered topics such as how to think about a job, how to make a good argument for yourself, etc.

I would say that, of our recent cohorts, 20 to 30 percent of them go on to doctoral programs. Another 30 percent of them go on to teaching positions, such as lectureships or tenure-track community college positions, which require only a terminal master’s degree. And the remainder typically enter industry. Because of where we are situated, a lot of our students are interested in public relations, and apply for jobs in the entertainment industry since we are so close to Hollywood. But many of them go on to social service-oriented jobs, and some of them choose to work at local nonprofits. For example, one of our recent students just came back to talk to our students about her job as promotions director at a local radio station, KROQ, which is a big alternative music station that is popular amongst young people. So I would say that our graduates are pretty evenly spread across those three areas: doctoral programs, teaching positions, and nonteaching positions in industry.

In addition to the formal and informal mentorship relationships and guidance we offer students as faculty, our Department also has three opportunities that we are very pleased to be able to offer students. One of them is faculty Graduate Teaching Associate positions, or GTAs for short. These are competitive positions where students take on the entire curriculum and teaching responsibilities for a course. If you are hired as a GTA, we will place you into sections of our basic course in communication, which is Oral Communication. It’s a class that all freshman are required to take in their first year at Cal State LA. And we currently have approximately 30,000 students enrolled on our campus, so that means we have a lot of sections of oral communication to fill. Each of our GTAs can staff two sections. We figure that that is not an overbearing balance for them between work and their studies.

The GTAships pay well, and they are overseen by our excellent GTA coordinator, Dr. Kristina Ruiz-Mesa, who works with each GTA one-on-one. She also meets the GTAs in a group every week that they are teaching to talk about issues, how to become better teachers, and how to deal with particular issues that come up in a classroom. So that is another avenue that we have of support; for individuals who want to teach at the community college level or in higher education, being a GTA provides excellent training and a strong community of support. Students apply for GTAships by indicating it in their application and writing a short pedagogical statement about their goals and why they want to be a teacher.

The second opportunity that students have is Graduate Assistantships, which are competitive positions that we usually can offer on a regular basis to our students. Graduate Assistantships can take a wider variety of forms than GTAships, which are focused on teaching and managing an undergraduate classroom. Graduate Assistants can be teaching assistants for our fulltime faculty, or they can work with our faculty to help them with their research projects. As with the GTAships, Graduate Assistants also receive a lot of faculty support and they obtain valuable, paid experience in an area that is of academic or professional interest to them.

The third paid position is as a Forensics Coaching Assistant. We usually have two to three openings each year for students who are interested in coaching our very renowned Forensics squad. We produce national champions almost every year, and we pride ourselves on the quality of the team members and the quality of the people who coach them.

Outside of the paid opportunities within our Department, we also have faculty members who are very proactive in helping students find opportunities on and off campus. Some of our instructors do consulting and have their own consultancies, and a couple are specifically in the PR field. These faculty members have worked with our students who are interested in public relations jobs to help connect them with clients in the local area.

And regarding our new health communication faculty whom we just hired, one of them was a working professional for a number of years at the City of Hope Cancer Center and has a lot of experience outside of academe, which has been great for helping students to find jobs and to understand the job landscape in health communication.

There is also a Graduate Student Resource Center on our campus that offers a lot of seminars and workshops for students who are thinking ahead towards careers. Students who have attended these workshops have said that they are very helpful. Finally, we also have a journal in our Department called Colloquy, which is a student-run, peer-reviewed journal. I’m the supervising editor, and I have seen students get a lot of excellent experience with the publishing process through editing and publishing quality articles. We have a team of student-editors that change each year, and a number of our students become published authors in the journal. We receive numerous submissions, which typically originate as term papers that students submit from their seminars. These papers go through a rigorous, blind peer-review process, just like any national journal would do. This process is essentially: the editorial team receives and writes up complete reviews of each of the submissions, and then we meet together to decide which ones we want to have go towards publication. I work with the student editors to help them craft the appropriate tone and content for letters of rejection, acceptance, and revision, and to submit articles formally, just the way a national journal would do. For both students who submit their articles and for the publishing team at Colloquy, the entire process is highly useful in getting familiar with academic research, presentation, and publication.

And then when we finish the process, students receive a hard copy of the journal issue that we distribute and an online version on our website that is archived dating back years so that students can see the depth and breadth of our publication’s history. You can find these publications at www.calstatela.edu/colloquy.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in California State University, Los Angeles’ Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. DeChaine] That is probably the question that as Director I get asked more than any other, and I sometimes have students that call me or e-mail me or come and see me in person to ask me that question. And I usually tell them, one of the major criteria that we use when we’re thinking about applicants is what they write in their personal statement. We have structural requirements for admission that are university-based, like a minimum GPA. But specifically, on a more qualitative level, what the student says to us in their personal statement carries a lot of weight.

One piece of advice I have for students is that it is better to tell us what you want to know from our program than what you already know about communication. Another way to put that is a lot of personal statements will read as though the student is trying to impress us with their breadth of knowledge of communication, and they tend to drop names of professors and theories and theorists and concepts and so on. And that is all well and good. We like to see that students are serious about communication and are coming in with a good baseline of knowledge. But what is much more interesting to us is what they want to get out of our program, what they hope to learn, and how they plan to apply it in the program and after graduating.

Specifically, what are the existing gaps in knowledge that they feel they need to fill to achieve their goals? What are their passions? Or, if they do not know what fields within communication they would like to specialize in, what do they hope to do in our program to explore multiple subjects and clarify their interests? Those kinds of inquiry-related descriptions carry the most weight for us. It tells us more about who they are as a person as well.

That is not to say that we do not want applicants to showcase their strengths and communication experience in their essay—rather, they should use that as a springboard to talk about what interests them moving forward. Because if you only talk about what you already know, we will not have a good sense of how we can serve you.

Regarding letters of recommendation, we generally want at least one of the two letters of recommendation to be from a former faculty member. The second can be from a previous employer or supervisor in an organization at which the student has worked, which can give us a different dimension of understanding of the student. We would like the letters to come from an authority who has worked closely with the student and who can speak to not only their skills and abilities, but also their potential for growth.

The third component that we take really seriously in the admission evaluation process is the writing sample. We ask students to send in a fairly brief writing sample if they can, somewhere between about five and 15 pages demonstrating their writing skills and the fact that they know how to do research. Make sure that when you send in your personal statement, writing sample, and letters of recommendation that you have clearly given thought to how they round out the picture that we have of you, because at that stage, that is all we have to form an impression of you.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes California State University, Los Angeles’ Master of Arts in Communication Studies program unique, and a particularly strong graduate option for students?

[Dr. DeChaine] I believe that one aspect that makes us stand out is the challenge of our program in conjunction with our support of each student. We are quite rigorous in our expectations of students. We want them not just to succeed in our program, but also to be able to succeed after our program, and because of that, we hold them to quite high standards. And our program has developed that reputation both on our campus and beyond our campus. A lot of the people who apply to our program have already heard about us at conferences. They see that we always have a lot of our master’s students who attend these conferences and present their work there. For instance, at the last National Communication Association conference, in Dallas, we had 40 students attending, and 17 presenters were students in our program. Students feel well prepared for their path after our program, and their instruments of preparation are our colloquia, our teaching experiences such as being a GTA and being a GA, and being a Forensics Coaching Assistant, and the extracurricular activities we help them engage in, such as presentations at local, regional, and national conferences.

The connections that students make with faculty are another element that makes our program stand out. Students and alumni often compliment us on how well taken care of they feel. They feel like we really spent quality time with them to support them and to give them the opportunities and guidance to discover what really interests them in the field of communication. Our faculty is very collegial, and I think probably some of that collegiality is visible to our students, and rubs off on them. As a result, our student body parallels and reflects the values of our Department’s faculty. And much of our program’s value comes from what the students do themselves to develop communities within their cohort. So a lot of times what starts to happen in the first year of their program is that students will find other people who have similar interests, and they start reading groups and study groups outside of the classroom.

So there is a great deal of community-building that students do themselves. One thing I have learned as a faculty member at a university is that most of the learning does not come from the classroom or from the professors. We facilitate the learning process, but the majority of the growth comes from the student and the relationships he or she cultivates during the two years in the program. It comes from what happens when, as you start to make your way through the field, you develop relationships and interests.

I have been in a number of programs as a student, and you can usually tell pretty quickly if a department gets along and moves forward as a cohesive and mutually supportive unit. And we’ve heard back from students who went on to Ph.D. programs who have said, “Wow, I just went through three or four years of my Ph.D. program, and I felt like I got more nurturing out of six months of my master’s program with you guys.” We take that as a huge compliment, and a good sign of what we were able to accomplish by spending quality time with our students, pushing them to achieve their potential, and providing them with the opportunities to explore their interests and strengths.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of master’s in communication programs often must balance coursework, teaching responsibilities, internships, work (for students who are not enrolled full-time), and rigorous research projects. What advice do you have for students in terms of successfully navigating their graduate school experience, and making the most of the opportunities presented to them?

[Dr. DeChaine] A couple of weeks before the beginning of the first semester, we have an orientation session that I lead, where I have a serious talk with the students about work-life balance. In that orientation meeting, one of the things that I say is, “When you make the transition from being an undergraduate student to being a graduate student, it’s sort of like driving a stick shift car and shifting straight from first gear into fifth with nothing in between. And the difference can be quite jarring in terms of the workload–not just more reading (although there is a lot more reading), and not just writing (although there is a lot more writing), but also all of the other time that involves the thinking about the reading and the writing.”

And a lot of students chuckle when I say this, but when I was an M.A. student and for a lot of M.A. students who have shared their experiences with me, the majority of time comes not in the assigned readings, but rather in all the other stuff that you do to understand those readings. You have to sit down and really think about what the ideas mean that you are studying, and how they all go together, and how they start to create a web that connects different aspects and different practices of communication across subfields. Students need to develop the holistic understanding and critical thinking skills to find the similarities and differences between the theories and methodologies they are learning, and how the case studies they examine in class apply to the real world.

For students who are GTAs or FCAs or GAs, we do not want them to sacrifice time for their studies, so we tell students that we can adjust their schedules along the way if they are struggling. A lot of our students are working adults, and they have lives outside of their educational studies. And they have to be thinking seriously about that as well. Some of our students are nontraditional, and they have kids that they are taking care of, or parents that they are caregivers for. Some of our students work fulltime in jobs outside of their studies. Students need to learn how to compartmentalize and also organize their schedule, with the understanding that their graduate program is going to take a lot of their attention and energy. So the final piece of advice I have for prospective and new students is to know what you’re getting into, and keep the larger picture in mind. Our master’s program is just a small chunk of your whole life experience. It can have a huge positive impact on your life and career, but it requires that you set aside serious, dedicated time to your studies.

Thank you, Dr. DeChaine, for your excellent insight into California State University, Los Angeles’ Master of Arts in Communication Studies program!