About Sarah Bonewits Feldner, Ph.D.: Sarah Bonewits Feldner is the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication. As Associate Dean, Dr. Feldner advises students in the Master of Arts in Communication program and Master of Arts in Corporate Communication Program, and manages student recruitment and admissions. In addition, she oversees curriculum development and extracurricular programming, and supports faculty in the College of Communication. As an Associate Professor, Dr. Feldner teaches courses in corporate and organizational rhetoric, communication in training and development, managerial communication, and communication in contemporary issues. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Kentucky, her Master of Arts from Indiana University, and her Ph.D. from Purdue University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Marquette University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, and how it is structured? What learning outcomes can students expect from this program?
[Dr. Feldner] The Master of Arts in Communication is a 30 credit degree program that provides students with advanced knowledge and skills in communication strategy and advanced communication research. We offer two specializations in the program—Digital Communication Strategies and Communication and Media Studies.
Every student in our program, regardless of specialization, takes three core courses: Communication Theory in Context, Communication Research in Action, and Communication as Ethical Practice. These classes are really a foundation for students to be able to think analytically about communication, and engage in research and communication strategies in ethical ways. These classes discuss both what it means to be a practitioner and what it means to be a scholar from a communications standpoint.
Our classes for the specializations are run in a seminar format. As we tend to incorporate current events into each of our classes, these classes are a mix of core advanced theories and methods, and special topics in the field. For example, we have a seminar in political communication, and we are discussing the current elections cycle and applying it to the political communication concepts that students learn. In another semester, for our seminar in organizational communication, we might bring in a person or an organization that specializes in crisis communication.
Students can build their electives sequence in a way that makes sense for them. Within the specialization, they take three courses but any three they want to take. And then the rest of their program, they work with an advisor to build their plan of study. When we put the program together, we really didn’t want to have a lockstep process, where students had to take class A, class B, class C, and the course sequence is always the same, or highly limited. Most students want to explore several areas of study, and to also connect disciplines outside of communication to their studies. For example, if a student is focusing on digital communication and wants to use digital media management to achieve goals in an organizational setting, they can take a pro-seminar in public life or a different topic, and that can count towards their particular specialization.
All of our students have a choice of culminating experience as well. For those who want to do more of a research focus, they can do a traditional thesis option to round out their program. For those who want to do more of a practical portfolio option, they can do a professional project option that’s coupled with a practicum, which is a grad level internship.
The digital communication strategies specialization is really focused on preparing those students who really want to think about work in the digital communications space, whether it’s designing the messages, thinking about the technologies we need, or leading strategic communication projects. Students with undergraduate degrees or professional backgrounds in advertising or journalism tend to gravitate towards this specialization, as it prepares them for designing effective messages using digital communication tools. We also give them an understanding how digital communication is evolving, what the new tools are, and the technologies available.
The other specialization, Communication and Media Studies, is broader. It concerns more the process of communication, whether it’s media or face-to-face, in an organizational setting. It tends to think about how we make communication effective in any setting, and how you manage processes to make it work better. It does not exclusively consider communication through digital technologies. Most of our students who go on to Ph.Ds. tend to come out of the Communication and Media Studies concentration, although we’ve had a few exceptions to that. People who see themselves working in a communication function in a corporation or in a nonprofit, or doing, working in a research department on communication also tend to gravitate towards this specialization.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of Marquette University’s Master of Arts in Communication program can choose between completing a master’s thesis or a professional project. Could you please elaborate on both of these options, and what they entail?
[Dr. Feldner] The thesis is where a student works independently on a research question of his or her own. After they have done their coursework and worked through it, they come up with a topic or an area of interest that they’d like to research more. The thesis develops students’ ability to ask a significant research question. Students go back and see what has been done, both in terms of research and industry practice, in this area of interest. They must determine what information they need to answer their research query, and they must gather this data and analyze it. Finally, they must offer an original insight through their research and analysis. We’ve had students examine how different people and organizations respond in crisis situations, and how that varies depending on whether the audience of this messaging are internal employees or an external contractor. For example, if you outsource a function, how do they understand their role and their relationship and how does that play out in an emergency situation?
Students begin their work on their thesis by working with an advisor or me as the director of graduate studies, who helps them identify potential advisors. Students choose a thesis chair who is their advisor for the project. They then choose two other faculty members who, along with their advisor, serve as a committee of three.
It usually takes the course of an academic year, sometimes into a summer. They work through the process of a proposal that they get approved by the committee, which outlines what they want to do for their project. And then students do the research, write the final project, and defend at the end of the term before their committee, reviewing what they did, and what they learned from the experience.
The value of the thesis is the ability to manage a project independently, and to offer an insight that changes our understanding. We often think of it as an academic track, but I have found it works well for all of our students who want to go into employment because it says to an employer that if there is a challenge or something they’re wrangling with, this student can go in, work the primary data, come up with solutions, and offer sort of an insight that wasn’t there before.
The practicum and professional project is also a total of six credits, divided between the practicum and the project. This option is more for students who want to look at an existing context, organizational setting, or a particular client of an organization, to examine a real need and to address that need through a product, a communication plan, or strategy. Some students have worked with nonprofits, while others have worked with larger corporations. This internship helps students figure out what they want to do for their project. The practicum is a three-credit experience, so overall the practicum and resultant project are the same number of credits as the thesis. During their internship, students spend time with an organization, completing work, observing, and/or doing interviews. They complete a series of assignments that ask them to connect concepts from their program to what they’re seeing and what they’re observing and what their experience has been.
At the end of the practicum, they develop their final paper for that class. This paper is a proposal that outlines the parameters and object of their professional project. It outlines, here are some needs, here are some areas of where I think communication will play a role in helping this organization continue to be successful, or address certain challenges they are facing. The practicum and project route is not so much about trying to develop an insight that’s portable to any kind of work, but rather some targeted work that addresses a specific need. It could be a consulting project, or a website redesign, or a strategic communications plan, for example.
I have a student right now who is doing a campaign on how to acclimate millennium voters, and what kind of election campaign would be needed. Some people do digital storytelling projects where they put together an online multimedia narrative. One student is doing a series of podcasts. Those are just a few examples.
As with students who are working on a thesis, students who select the project option work with an advisor who helps lead them. This advisor gives them active support, so that while they don’t have a committee, I think they have just as much support from this one contact person whose area of expertise is in their project’s field, and they work through the process with them. The project usually can be completed in a course of a semester.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Marquette University also offers a Master of Arts in Corporate Communication program, which has campus, online, and hybrid options. Could you please elaborate on this program, its curriculum and target learning outcomes, and how it helps prepare students for advanced leadership careers in corporate communication?
[Dr. Feldner] The corporate communication master’s degree is a jointly managed program through the College of Communication and our Graduate School of Management. And the curriculum is entirely separate from the Master of Arts in Communication program. This program is designed for the student who wants to think about the business function of communication, see communication as an executive level function, and work in that space.
Students in this program will take five of their courses from our college, and five from the School of Management. It is a set array of ten courses that these students take. On the communications side, students take classes in Organizational Communication, Corporate Advocacy, Financial Communication and Investor Relations, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Communication Consulting. From the Graduate School of Management, students then take a class in Leadership Coaching and Development, Economic Foundations for Marketing Decisions, Accounting and Finance for the Non-Financial Manager, and Leading People and Change. After these core classes, students take one Leadership elective and one International Business elective. Leadership electives include classes in negotiating, change leadership at the individual and organizational levels, strategic communication, and research and applications of contemporary leadership.
This program is really for people who want to transition to a leadership role and to start thinking about the business and management side of communication, and how communication plays into overall corporate strategy. For these students, their academic records are housed in the Graduate School of Management, and there is a fulltime advisor within that school who helps them. However, I also serve as advisor for these students. So these students benefit from joint advising and resources from both the College of Communication and the Graduate School of Management.
All ten of the courses in the program are available online, so students have the option to take all ten online, take courses face-to-face, or do a combination. The online classes use our learning management system, which is D2L, and includes chat-rooms and discussion forums. These online classes tend to be asynchronous due to our students’ different work schedules, but there are capabilities for Skype/video-chat meetings. And for many of the classes, students break into discussion groups and work on a case study together.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Marquette University’s Master of Arts in Communication and Master of Arts in Corporate Communication programs? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems?
[Dr. Feldner] For the Master of Arts in Communication, we try to keep our classes small—for example, our seminars have about 12 students on average in them. This means a lot of direct contact with the instructors on a class-by-class basis, which enhances students’ learning outcomes and their connections with their peers and faculty. For the corporate communication program, when students choose online, it is a different relationship, but they always have direct access to faculty and advisors.
And one of the things that we feel is very important is the fact that we have full-time faculty who are dedicated to teaching our graduate courses, which means quality instruction, conducting research in their areas of expertise, and advising students are at the center of what they do. They have the availability to work with our students and to talk students through their projects. They also know our program and how it has evolved over the years, and the mentorship is much stronger as a result.
Students of our MA in Communication program receive most of their advising through their project director or thesis director. Most students start figuring out what that topic is going to be during their second year in the program. Once students have completed half of their coursework, they develop a pretty good idea of what they might want to investigate or create for their final thesis/project. In addition, for the MA in Communication, students also have an academic advisor who is a full-time faculty member. For our regular, residential MA program, I meet with students regularly and support them as much as they need. For example, the other day I connected with a student who was trying to decide between the thesis and the project, and we spent time talking about the benefits of both options so she could make an informed decision.
Our students also have access to the Marquette Career Center, which helps students with career counseling, resume editing, and other professional support. In addition, within the College of Communication, we have an internship coordinator who helps students find practicums.
Apart from formal avenues of academic and career support, our faculty are also highly active in supporting students in their career endeavors and connecting them to useful people in the field. Many of our faculty members have ties to corporations and agencies here in Milwaukee, and they connect students with their professional network. We also run seminars that provide students with useful information on how to build and manage their professional network, and the practicum does a lot for students in that regard as well.
We have a series of conferences that we host on campus that boost students’ professional development. In addition, we have an O’Brien Fellowship, which is more journalism-focused. And while we are not a journalism-focused master’s degree, students in digital communication strategies often work with these fellows who are Pulitzer or prize-winning journalists who spent a year here working on in-depth projects. And graduate students in our College can work as their research assistants for their practicum credit. From this work, students get that direct contact and learn how to design those messages using evolving media. There is a conference that is associated with the O’Brien Fellowship that our graduate students can attend. The other connection is we have a Digital Communications Summit where we bring industry professionals to campus to talk about digital communication issues. Finally, we have a Corporate Communications Summit that focuses exclusively on the corporate communication issues that organizations face, and our students have the opportunity to engage with these problems and interact with professionals in the space. Students who wish to attend conferences can apply for funds, both through our College of Communications, and through Marquette University Graduate School.
In addition to the aforementioned support systems and opportunities, we also offer graduate assistantships through our program. We have several avenues for financial aid—firstly the traditional financial aid that students apply for and which is either need or merit-based, but the second type is graduate teaching assistantships. Unlike the need based and merit based grants, graduate assistantships are linked to work expectations. Our graduate assistantships often involve teaching with faculty for some of our larger classes, and leading discussions and grading assignments under the supervision of their assigned faculty member.
We also have some research assistantships, where students are assigned to several faculty to help them with their research. Both teaching and research-focused assistantships require a 20-hour-a-week commitment, and cover the cost of tuition and a stipend for the year, which at present is close to about $16,000.00 annually. We feel pretty good about that level of support. So while they don’t get course credit for their assistantships, students receive a substantial financial gain.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in Marquette University’s Master of Arts in Communication and/or Master of Arts in Corporate Communication programs, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Feldner] I would say that every component of the application is important, for different reasons, and that students should devote careful attention to each aspect. The personal statement is important in that it serves as both a writing sample, and an explanation of the applicant’s goals. From the personal statement, we determine the applicant’s writing abilities and what they wish to contribute to the larger student body in our program. We also require three letters of recommendation, and gather information from these letters about students’ writing abilities, academic background, and academic/professional drives. We ask that students include at least one academic reference, as the program is quite rigorous from an academic perspective and we need to understand their abilities to handle the coursework we require. I recommend that students ask recommenders who know their writing and academic abilities, and who know them personally and can speak to their goals.
For both the MA in Communication and the MA in Corporate Communication, we take into consideration any professional experience applicants may have. Those students can apply for a waiver of the GRE based on professional experience. And, sometimes, we’ll make some core substitutions based on what work they’ve been doing to make sure that the program is really taking them further from where they were when they started.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Marquette University’s Master of Arts in Communication and Master of Arts in Corporate Communication programs unique, and particularly strong graduate degree options for students?
[Dr. Feldner] For the MA in Communication, I would say that the flexibility is one of the central reasons why this program is such an excellent option for students. The flexibility is by design, and allows them to follow their interests and build the skills they need through a small program that gives them direct faculty access. Due to the small scale of our program, students have many opportunities to work one-on-one with faculty. In addition, the practicum project gives students an excellent opportunity to build their professional skills. Students really see this as a professional development growth opportunity.
With the graduate program in corporate communication, I think that what makes it unique is we are one of the few programs that offers a joint perspective in graduate communications and advanced business administration and leadership. The program has faculty from both colleges, and students can leverage resources from both. And the flexibility of taking classes both online and/or face-to-face, while working directly with faculty who are actively connected to the professional community but still doing research and staying up to date on state-of-the-art technologies and strategies, is incredibly valuable.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of master’s in communication programs often must balance work, internships, coursework, 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. Feldner] I think that one of the most important things students can do is to establish a healthy rhythm and balance early on in their graduate career. We have students who are really good at working in the morning, some who are really good at working in the afternoon, and some who have daytime obligations and who can really crank work out at night. Whatever your preferences, it’s important to develop a schedule that’s realistic and stick to it. For example, I have some graduate students who find weekends are the best times for them. On Sunday afternoons, they get organized and do all their readings, and so that becomes their rhythm, and they stick to that. Other students get up in the morning and get it all done. Or whatever your rhythm is–as it’s not a one size-fits all–you need to figure out what yours is and stick to it.
The other piece of advice I have is to schedule intentional breaks where you take the time to take care of yourself. Whether it is exercise, or recreational reading, or time with your family, or journaling, you should make sure you build in time for that so that you maintain grounding.
I think the hardest time for graduate students is when they’re working on those projects and pieces that are independent, such as their thesis or final project, because these projects don’t have set deadlines. The solution to this is figuring out a communication pattern with your advisors, establishing a cadence consisting of, we’re going to talk once a week, or every other week, to make sure there’s continual check-ins so they continue to move forward.
Thank you, Dr. Feldner, for your excellent insight into Marquette University’s Master of Arts in Communication and Master or Arts in Corporate Communication programs!