About Dr. Robert J. Baron, Ph.D.: Robert Baron is the Graduate Program Coordinator for the Department of Communication at Austin Peay State University. As Coordinator, Dr. Baron advises students throughout their tenure in the program, supports faculty in their development of courses, and oversees recruitment and admissions. As an Assistant Professor, Dr. Baron also teaches courses in digital media, social media, and media literacy, as well as persuasion theory.
Dr. Baron received his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Communications, and subsequently received his Master of Arts in Communication Studies and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Scientific, and Technical Communications from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Austin Peay State University’s online Master of Arts in Communication Arts program, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum and electives, and what are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?
[Dr. Baron] The Online Master of Arts in Communication Arts is a 34-credit hour program with concentrations in Marketing and Media Management and specializations in Corporate Communication and General Communication. Our specializations are distinct from our concentrations in that the concentrations appear on students’ transcripts and diplomas, whereas the specializations do not. Regardless of which specialization or concentration students choose, they have the same core course requirements:
- Communication Research Methods: A foundational overview of advanced research methodologies in communication, including qualitative and quantitative methods, library scholarship, legal research, and historical research.
- Applied Communication Theory: Students learn different communication theories, from dyadic and small group communication theories to those that apply to organizational and mass communication contexts. How to apply these theories to examining and optimizing communication processes in a variety of environments.
- Pro-Seminar in Communication: The role of communication in professional settings, including advertising, sales, public relations, print and broadcast journalism, and social media.
- Communication Law: The ethical considerations for interpersonal, organizational, and mass/public communication, and the legal and ethical implications of new media technologies.
After the core courses, students can choose to concentrate in one of our four concentrations/specializations.
The Marketing Communication Concentration is ideal for marketing, advertising, and public relations professionals who want to advance their careers into more managerial roles, though students who are interested in pursuing doctoral studies in marketing communication research may also choose this track. Students in this concentration are required to take the following concentration courses:
- Organizational Communication: Organizational communication theories and their applications in identifying and resolving communication problems and optimizing communication dynamics within an organization. How to manage ethical issues in an organizational environment, and how culture and internal communities impact communication practices and conflict mediation.
- Marketing Communication Strategies: Integrated marketing communication and branding strategies for the 21st century, as well as the history and evolution of direct marketing communication theories and methods.
- Leadership and Communication: Communication as a way of facilitating and signaling leadership. Students examine case studies and have group discussions and projects that help them hone their communication skills and develop sound strategies for communicating and leading teams in organizational settings.
The Media Management Concentration is ideal for students who are working professionals in broadcast journalism and television, marketing, sales, and promotions roles who want to advance into more managerial and/or executive positions. Students of this concentration must take two courses:
- Media Management: The different elements of effective media management, from overseeing the legal, sales, and programming aspects of media to the incorporation of new media technologies into a media plan.
- Economics of Mass Media: The impact of mass media on our economy and society, and how economic principles relate to the development and implementation of mass media technologies.
The Corporate Communication Specialization requires students to take one course specifically in Integrated Corporate Communication, while the General Communication Specialization allows students to choose all of their electives from our offerings. The Integrated Corporate Communication course covers all of the important elements of corporate communication, including internal communications and management, as well as external-facing communications such as public relations, marketing/advertising, sales, and the integration of communication technologies into a corporation’s communication flow.
Students have a great deal of flexibility in their course selections, as depending on their chosen concentration and/or specialization they can take 15-21 course credits of electives of their choosing. There is also enough overlapping coursework between the concentrations that should a student wish to change his or her focus part way through the program that is usually feasible.
All students are required to complete a research paper or a thesis as their final graduation requirement. The Marketing Communication and Media Management Concentrations, and the Corporate Communication specialization, require students to complete a research paper, while the General Communication Specializations allow students to choose either a thesis or a research paper.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on how Austin Peay State University’s Online Master of Arts in Communication Arts incorporates online learning technologies into its curriculum, and how students interact with classmates and instructors?
[Dr. Baron] We give our faculty members a lot of flexibility in how they use the online technologies available to them to facilitate class discussions and interactions. Some of our professors use video as a way to introduce themselves and connect with their students. As an instructor, I am a fan of asynchronous discussion boards which give students the chance to engage with their peers but on their own schedule; this works particularly well for our students who also work full-time. All of our course content is available to students asynchronously, which gives them the ability to manage their school schedule around their professional and personal obligations.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of Austin Peay State University’s Online Master of Arts in Communication Arts can choose between completing a master’s thesis or a research paper. Could you please elaborate on both of these options, and what they entail?
[Dr. Baron] For the Corporate Communication Specialization, Media Management Concentration, and Marketing Communication Concentration, students must complete a research project because these programs are seen as more professionally focused. For the general communication concentration, students can pursue either a thesis or a research paper.
The thesis counts for six credits, which consists mainly of independent research work with the support of the student’s thesis advisor and committee. Relative to the research project, the thesis tends to be more formal, longer, and chapter-based. Students choose three faculty members to be on their committee, and one of the members is their individual advisor. Students who elect to take the thesis route write and submit a research proposal, followed by an oral defense of that proposal. They then implement their research project, gather and interpret the data, and write about their findings, which they present orally to their committee at the conclusion of the semester.
The research project involves taking a semester-long three-credit class where the student works with a single faculty member to develop a research project that meets the requirements and specification of that faculty member. Similar to the thesis, students engage in one-on-one mentorship as they work on a research project largely independently. However, with the research project, there’s a lot of latitude for what the final product might look like. Some faculty are looking for shorter projects, while some are looking for longer projects. In general, our faculty are pretty flexible in that they allow students to create a project that aligns with their academic, professional, and/or artistic interests. For example, if students have more of a production mindset, they might do kind of a video or an audio project. The research project is not a case of the faculty member prescribing what the student will do—rather, they collaborate on selecting the topic and form of the final project. Another distinction between the research project and the thesis is that the research project does not require the formation of a committee, and there is no oral defense component.
In my experiences working with students on their research project, some students go a little further into their research and craft a 30-40 page research project that is ready for submission to a journal. Last spring, I had a student who created a documentary, and it was as well-researched as any traditional research paper that he might have turned in, but the form was documentary film. Other students have done projects that are directly relevant to their desired or current workplace. One of my students developed a guidebook for creating compelling transmedia storytelling and how to conduct research of one’s audience. As these examples illustrate, the project can really vary based on what the student is interested in doing and what his or her goals are. When advising students at the beginning of the program, I recommend that they spend a good amount of time seeking out professors whom they would want to oversee their research project, based on the faculty members’ research expertise.
I’ve also served on the committee for a student who used mixed method analyses to examine the role of social media in the U.S. presidential election of 2016 for her thesis. I had another student investigate different kinds of political campaign discourse back in 2015 for his thesis. Relative to the project, theses tend to be more steeped in advanced research and in-depth rhetorical and/or social criticism, with the goal of creating a publishable work that has an introduction, an explanation of methods and theories, and a formal discussion of the results. For students who want to go on to a Ph.D. program, we recommend they complete a thesis for their final graduation requirement, as the process of researching and writing is quite relevant to doctoral-level work, specifically their dissertation-writing process.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Austin Peay State University’s Online Master of Arts in Communication Arts 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. Baron] All of our faculty are highly invested in helping students develop their skills and take that next step in their career. Mentorship is a huge emphasis for us, which is why we prioritize one-on-one guidance when students embark on their research project or thesis. We also write students’ letters of recommendation if they are applying to doctoral programs, and we provide our students who are focused on professional advancement in industry with useful contacts and support. As we are a very applied program, we have a lot of interaction with professionals in marketing, media production and management, corporate communication, and so on. We try to cultivate these connections as much as possible so that we can pass those contacts and potential mentors on to our students. From the beginning of their program, I typically advise students to be as proactive as possible in building strong connections with their course instructors, whether by online office hours or through working with them on their final project/thesis. Our eight-week online courses can go fairly quickly, so it is important for students who are interested in the subject matter of a class to take the initiative and reach out to professors outside of the confines of the curriculum.
Another opportunity that students have for mentorship is through graduate assistantships, which are only available to students who are able to come to campus. Some of these graduate assistantships are teaching-centric, and involve the student working with a faculty member to assist with teaching, grading, etc. For our students who have more media production experience, they can find assistantships that give them hands-on experience in an area of communication that is relevant to their interests. For example, I have a former student who is now out in L.A. doing work for the NFL Network and other big production organizations out in the Los Angeles area. And he came as an undergraduate; he did his undergraduate degree here, and then went on to our online master’s degree program and served as graduate assistant for us for two years. He left our program with more hands-on experience as a producer and director for sports broadcast, which he was then able to leverage in his work out in L.A. Another graduate student of ours was interested in being on the on-camera side of sports broadcasting, as opposed to the behind-the-scenes side. He had a graduate assistantship working in radio on campus, and now works for a major sports broadcast news program. Aside from valuable teaching and professional experience, graduate assistantships that can help offset the cost of the program through tuition remission and a modest stipend.
In addition to faculty mentorship and graduate assistantship opportunities, we also have a campus-based Career Services Center, which is available to anyone who wants to come in. Our Career Services Department is very willing to work with students whether they are online or campus-based students, and can provide support remotely for things such as job searching, resume workshopping, and interview preparation.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for Austin Peay State University’s Online Master of Arts in Communication Arts program?
[Dr. Baron] As we are a small program, we typically admit about five students per semester, but we take on more students when we can. We admit year-round so students can submit applications at any time for consideration. Unlike many programs, we do not require a personal statement, but we do require GRE scores and a minimum undergraduate GPA of 2.5 (for students who have a cumulative undergraduate GPA of 3.5 or higher, we waive the GRE requirement). For students who are interested in graduate assistantships, they might face more competition, but in general we try to accommodate all students who express an interest in teaching as a teaching assistant or completing work on campus as a graduate assistant. We look for an established professional record and a desire to teach/conduct research/engage in media-related work on campus.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Austin Peay State University’s Online Master of Arts in Communication Arts program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Dr. Baron] I would say that our intense professional focus in the program, the flexibility of our curriculum, our faculty’s commitment to supporting students in their final research project, and our work to provide courses that stay abreast of advancements in the field are all aspects that make our program distinctive. Everything we teach, from our foundational communication theory courses to our specialized classes in organizational communication, media management, etc., were designed with professional applications in mind. For example, we teach research methods, but we also discuss the market-based research applications of these methodologies, in addition to the academic research applications. We try to make sure that our program prepares students for a wide variety of advanced careers when they leave, and also give students a lot of autonomy in how they craft their program of study. For a small program, we offer a lot of courses so that students can delve into the specific areas of media management, documentary and feature writing, web content production, mass media and social justice, etc. that interest them.
We also work consistently to keep our curriculum relevant. Our faculty work on curriculum development throughout the year, and will even add special classes or sessions that address current topics in the media or recent advancements in the field. We try to be responsive to what is happening in the field of communication. With that said, we also designed the central classes of the program to withstand the test of time, with just minor changes as new theories, methods, and technologies come out, as we also understand the need for stability in a curriculum so that students know what to expect when they enroll.
Our faculty are also highly available for students, both in the online classroom context and on an extracurricular basis. We are a teaching-centric institution, and therefore our faculty members expect and encourage students to reach out with their questions, and to connect with them on their research interests. So if I were to summarize, I would say it is the availability, accessibility, flexibility, and professional focus of our program that makes it a strong choice for students.
Thank you, Dr. Baron, for your excellent insight into Austin Peay State University’s Online Master of Arts in Communication Arts program!