About Trey Guinn, Ph.D.: Trey Guinn is an Associate Professor and the Program Director for the Department of Communication Arts at University of the Incarnate Word. As Director, he oversees curriculum development for the Master of Arts in Communication Arts program, and also manages student advising, faculty hiring and support, and student recruitment and admissions. Through his commitment to student success and his tailored approach to advising, Dr. Guinn works to ensure that each student in the Master of Arts in Communication Arts program has the resources and support to explore his or her interests in communication.

In addition to his responsibilities at University of the Incarnate Word, Dr. Guinn also serves as an Executive Education workshop facilitator at the University of Texas at Austin, and as a Business Communication Specialist for the McCombs School of Business. Moreover, he works as a consultant for companies regionally, nationally, and globally who need help in optimizing group and organizational communication dynamics, enhancing presentational effectiveness, and maximizing executive presence. He has worked with groups and individuals from entities such as Amazon, Apple, Dell, Google, Intel, Harvard Business School, McKinsey, Microsoft, and many more. Dr. Guinn earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, and has published his research in journals that include Health Communication, Communication Research, Patient Education and Counseling, Personal Relationships, and more. His published books include Adventures in Adulting and Enhancing Presentational Effectiveness.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have an overview of your responsibilities as the Program Director for the Department of Communication Arts at the University of the Incarnate Word?

[Dr. Guinn] As Program Director for the Department of Communication Arts, I really see my role as being focused on both student recruitment and student experience. We want to give them a phenomenal experience once they’re in there, and to make sure that when they are exiting the program that they’re connecting to that next great opportunity. With that comes recruiting great students who we feel can contribute greatly to the community. As we consider students for admission, I try to understand who the person is, what their goals are personally and professionally, and I try to discern whether or not our program is a good fit for their personal and professional goals.

And when it comes to making sure that they’re having an experience in the program that allows them to thrive, very early on, I match students with a faculty advisor that is a good coach and cheerleader for them as they reach mutually agreed upon goals. By doing that, not only are we ensuring that individuals have a positive and meaningful experience, an enriching experience, but that also that when they’re leaving the program, that they leave proud of what they’ve done, and feeling even more ready for what lies ahead.

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

[Dr. Guinn] Back in 2014, I spent a year learning what the program was, who the students were, who the alumni were, what they loved about our program, what they didn’t love about our program. And with that information, we massively overhauled the curriculum. It is still a 36-hour program, but in the redesign I divided the 36 hours into three buckets. The first bucket is the core courses of which we have four, making up 12 credit hours. These core courses include Communication Theory, Introduction to Graduate Studies in Communication, Research and Writing Techniques, and Communication Research Methods. My belief there is in those four courses alone, the students are getting a very strong base of what tools they have as graduate communication students, as well as what is expected of them.

From there, the student is ready to really play “Choose Your Own Adventure” within the broad realm of communication. And so their next seven courses, which make up 21 credit hours, are comprised of their electives. We give students these many electives so that they can engage in a shared decision making process with their faculty advisor to select which seven courses are going to allow them to shape their graduate experience.

The reason we did this was because we recognized that within our discipline and within our school, people were coming to our program for a broad range of reasons and interests. Some people wanted to study something that would reflect more of communication studies, the quantitative side of things, while other students were more interested in the production side of things, whether that be journalism, sports broadcasting, or radio/television/film. These students want to study practical theories, concepts, and methods in interpersonal communication, organizational communication, mass communication, marketing communication, and other realms. And then we also have another sector of students who are interested in how the media and culture are interconnected, and who really want to take more of critical studies and rhetorical perspective. And so with these electives, students are really able to shape their own concentration based off of what interests them the most, and the realm in which they want to advance. Whether they’re going to be more in the realm of strategic and corporate communication, media and culture, media production, or media studies and rhetorical studies.

Then the third “bucket” in the curriculum is the capstone or thesis, which is just one course that is three hours. For the capstone, students complete a creative project that is tailored to what they want to explore and create. For some students, this is a documentary. And for others, it’s a short film or a marketing business plan.

And then for other students, it is a thesis. And theses in our program can be done in one of two ways. Sometimes, students will do something social science-related, where they are either using something like grounded theory to do a qualitative thesis study, or conducting a study that allows them to flex their quantitative skills. We will also have students who will do more of a critical cultural-type thesis report on any media-related phenomenon.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For students of the University of the Incarnate Word’s Master of Arts in Communication Arts program, what support do they receive from faculty during their work on their capstone project or thesis?

[Dr. Guinn] In both the case of the capstone project and the thesis, the student will identify a thesis chair or capstone chair. For most people doing our program, it takes them a total of two years to finish the curriculum–some are faster, while some take a little bit longer. But we really try to help the students, even in that first semester, to identify who is going to be the best faculty mentor and advisor to chair their capstone or thesis. Our goal is that when students are about two semesters into the program, they are already meeting with a chair and devising a strong path and plan forward. Ideally, it is in the final semester that students are polishing the final touches on their project, but at the same time we understand that every student’s timeline is different.

We also have a really celebrated event that is done once a semester called Meet the Masters. And at Meet the Masters, all of our graduating candidates for the MA will take the projects that they are working on independently with their chair, and they will come and present an eight-minute version of that project in front of all the faculty and graduate program cohort, as well as family, friends, and other administrators that come to the event. Our students deliver a miniature, eight-minute report on their project: What is the project, how did they conduct their research, and why does this project matter to the field of communication?

The diversity of student projects we have seen has been immensely gratifying. For example, one of our alumni is the co-coordinator and director of a two-week event in San Antonio called Dream Week, done in collaboration with other organizations in the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. And during this event, there are a lot of promotional items, strategic marketing, and event planning that go into it.

Well, one of our alumni, who co-chairs the entire Dream Week production, utilized her capstone as a way to better refine, not only the marketing materials, but also the actual planning that goes into that event. In doing so, she was able to examine and help improve an event that has a lot of value and in which she was highly invested, and utilize the coursework and the faculty that she had access to in her masters to refine and strengthen something she already cared about.

The reason I would give you that example is twofold. One, it was an incredible project. It was for an event that is real and matters in our community. And two, the program is very friendly toward individuals who already have great ideas and who want to realize them. One of the strengths of our program is that we immediately, from day one of students’ enrollment, start pushing them to ask themselves, “What do I care about? Where are my mind and heart?” And for our part, we’re committed to making sure our students are equipped with the skills, knowledge, and abilities to accomplish something meaningful in the specific area they already care about.

In another example, one of our students is the editor of a newspaper, and on a personal and professional level was really fascinated by fake news. And in my early conversations with her about her research interests, I said, “Lots of people are talking about fake news. How are you going to look at it differently?” And she really began reflecting on communication and media theory. And over the course of six months she devised a plan on how she was going to look at fake news through the lens of propaganda technique. In this case, she was able to take her own values and interest as a newspaper editor, and someone who was fascinated with journalism, and apply advanced communication and rhetorical theories to create an entire study that sought to outline how propaganda techniques are used to perpetuate what we know to be fake news. From there, she went out and started studying how people respond to pieces of propaganda in journalism and news media today, in order to determine how we can best understand the actual impact of fake news in society.

It was an excellent study, and she has been able to present her work in D.C. as well as locally. So I would say one of the greatest strengths of our program is that none of the faculty force students into a one-size-fits-all mold either in terms of curriculum and final research project. We see each student as an individual to whom we are committed in terms of helping them build on what they care about and advance their careers in exactly the ways they desire.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in the University of the Incarnate Word’s Master of Arts in Communication Arts? 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?

[Dr. Guinn] Mentorship starts on day one of our program. Students show up and they usually have a cup of coffee with me in the office or we go get some lunch. And it starts by me saying exactly who we are as a program and exactly what kinds of opportunities our students can leverage. If a student comes into our program with a strong interest in radio, then we’re going to do our utmost to let them be on the air from day one, and we’re going to encourage them to do a capstone or thesis on a topic that aligns with their passion for radio. If somebody says they want to produce a film or they want to learn how to broadcast live events, we’re going to connect them with our faculty who run our television station, and we’re going to look at that as an obvious match. If they want to critique film, then we have two faculty members who are dedicated to understanding and critiquing media and film through a critical cultural lens.

Our faculty expertise spans a wide range within the realm of communication, whether it’s journalism, strategic and corporate, or film. We believe it is really important to talk to students early on in order to determine what they want, so that we can connect them with the resources that can help them from day one. That is why I tend to push students on day one by asking them, “What do you care about? What questions do you have about communication that you want to answer?” Without such questions from the beginning and at intervals throughout the program, students’ graduate experience runs the risk of being just one big buffet of eating just a little bit of everything, but walking away without much other than a full stomach.

In the first semester of the program, with the Introduction to Graduate Studies in Communication course, every week we bring in a different faculty member who comes in to talk about their ongoing projects and their area of expertise within the communication faculty team. Often in that course I’ll see the light bulbs go off in the student’s mind where they say, “Oh, that’s exactly what I’m into. I just didn’t know how to put it into words.” And so from there, I say, “Great, let’s contact that faculty member and why don’t the three of us–the student, the faculty member, and myself–sit down and talk, or why don’t I send a shared email to said faculty member to start the conversation.

I also encourage students during their Introduction to Graduate Studies in Communication course to complete a “miniature thesis or capstone” their very first semester, similar to a prospectus, which they can bring to a meeting with this faculty member to show them what they are thinking of and devising, to start the conversation, and to invite constructive feedback. Doing so also enables the faculty member to get a good sense of what the student cares about, and how they can help give it shape and support through the second semester.

And so it is a little bit like matchmaking, which I prioritize for each student in semester one. Once students have identified their topics of interest and also connected with one or more faculty members, I collaborate with them to help them craft what their course of study may be for the following year. All of this up-front work means that by the time a student starts their third semester in year two, they’re ready to start developing either a more refined version of what they were talking about in semester one, or a whole new project that fits even better with their career goals.

Three years goes by very fast, and that is my concern for students–that if you don’t start those important conversations on day one, then students run the risk of floating through the first year just taking classes. And then, all of a sudden, they get halfway through the second year and are scrambling to figure out what they care about, and then during that final semester, they just throw a bunch of ideas against the wall to see if anything sticks. That’s not the ideal way to navigate one’s graduate experience. I’d rather students start throwing stuff against the wall the first semester, so they can start vetting what sounds like them and what they’re actually passionate about. I joke with my students sometimes in that first semester, and tell them, “How are you going to know what you’re going to fall in love with if you don’t just start going on dates and seeing what you like and don’t like?” And that helps them realize that it doesn’t have to be love at first sight. They don’t have to love their first research idea, their very first capstone idea. But you won’t know what you love and don’t love until you just start spitting some ideas out.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in the University of the Incarnate Word’s Master of Arts in Communication Arts, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Guinn] Personally, the first thing that I look for is intent and goal. What is your intent for graduate school? What do you want to get out of graduate school, and how do you see this program fitting into your story–who you are and where you are?

If someone can demonstrate that this program will serve a valuable purpose to their personal and professional path, and if they can articulate that, I usually look at that student and say, “We can start the conversation.” Even if they haven’t taken their GRE yet, I can start talking to that student to see if this is a good fit.

And this may be unique when compared to a lot of programs. It certainly would be unique from graduate programs I attended where the admissions process was very quantitative. You either have this GPA or this GRE score, or you don’t, and depending on that you make the cut or you don’t. But in our program, our starting point and the core of the admissions process is the personal statement, where we just want some honesty about who you are and what you want out of this program–that’s the start to a great conversation.

In terms of letters of recommendation, we recommend students ask whomever they feel can give them the strongest recommendation for this type of program–in other words, someone who can speak to their writing skills, research skills, creativity, initiative, and work ethic. We welcome both academic and professional references. Some of our best graduate students have demonstrated very little with regard to academic background or scholarly background, but can demonstrate great work ethic and big career goals. And those sometimes end up being our stellar students. It’s a mix.

We know that some people come into our program because they want to get a Ph.D. after, and we know some people come into the program because they want to get a job working for ESPN. Those tend to be two very different candidates, and we’re open-minded to both. And the great thing about that is that it creates a certain richness in the classroom. The diversity of the student body in the program is a strength in the program, for both our academically oriented and professionally oriented students to discuss their ideas. In a typical Introduction to Graduate Studies class, you might have people who are just coming out of undergrad, along with those who have completed time in military and those who have been out in the work force for several years and have families. And their goals are also quite diverse, with one person wanting to make documentaries and another person wanting to study the impact of horror films. We even had one student who wanted to examine how the communication dynamic between volleyball coaches and athletes impacts competitiveness. And one of the great things about our students is that, rather than competing for airspace, our students see it as an opportunity to learn from one another and gain insight into the challenges of the communication discipline as a whole. When treated with respect and a sense of open mindedness, the wide range of backgrounds, interests, and goals in our classroom can add a lot of strength in terms of perspective-making and sense-making.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes the University of the Incarnate Word’s Master of Arts in Communication Arts program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Guinn] There are several things I would note, and I will try not to reiterate what we have already covered. Firstly, if you’re admitted into the program, we believe in you from day one. We are already invested in you from the moment you walk through the door, and your value is assumed. And because of that, we aren’t trying to convince you to impress us. In fact, the opposite is true–it is our job to give you the academic experience and professional empowerment you deserve. Our primary objective is to give you the tools to realize your own goals, and we are your cheerleader in accomplishing those goals. Because of this mindset, I think students end up achieving more and walking away very proud of themselves, because they weren’t running my race–they ran their race.

Within the program, we operate like a family. At the end of the year, we have an end of year summer celebration, and even after students graduate, we stay connected. It is not uncommon for graduates to reach out to us for recommendations, or just to connect and catch up about where they are at in their lives. I have also Skyped alumni into our classrooms numerous times, and brought alumni into the physical classroom on numerous occasions. Current students love hearing who the alumni are and what they’re doing, and our alumni in turn really enjoy sharing their experiences. Moreover, these alumni often offer practicum experiences, job opportunities, and informal mentorship to our students. A lot of times, our alumni will return to our Meet the Master’s event to enjoy a glass of wine and cheer on the people graduating. We also have a thriving advisory board, which includes a lot of local leaders, some of whom are our own alumni.

I don’t want to say that our program is antithetical to my own graduate school experience, because I absolutely loved my graduate school experience. But as a Program Director I felt strongly that it was my job to look for ways to take what I experienced and make it better. I am sure a lot of program directors do so, and I don’t think I’m unique in that way, but I certainly am intentional in that way. Because graduate school is expensive (and on that note, we do have assistantships, but not everybody that comes into the program gets an assistantship). I always tell students, in one way or another, you’re paying for this, even if there isn’t a price tag associated, you’re giving up your time to sit in this classroom, and you’re giving up mental energy. And so I sleep better at night knowing that if somebody is investing their time and their money into this program, that when they walk out, they know it was worth it. I don’t like short-changing students. I want to know that everybody leaving says to themselves, “That was worthy of my time and my money.”

[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. Guinn] That is a very good question, and my answer to it will be in the form of an anecdote to start. I have a lot of students in that first semester who will say, “Well, I have this one idea, but it just doesn’t seem very academic. I doubt it will work.” And I say, “Well, just tell me what it is.” And they start talking about the projects that they are actually passionate about, and nine out of ten times, I say, “That is exactly the project you should be doing.”

And I share this because I think that a lot of graduate students believe that if an idea is not complicated, that somehow it is not worthy of academic study. If it is not complex, then it is not academic enough for their thesis or capstone. And I will be the first to tell students, “Complicated does not mean better.” Hard does not mean better. So when it comes to managing time and making sure that my students balance it all successfully, I tell my students that it is really important to choose projects and programs that feel like a natural fit.

That is not to say that those programs or projects will be easy, and it does not mean you won’t be stretched and challenged, but if you put on a pair of shoes and they don’t feel good from the first moment you put them on, they are probably not going to feel good throughout the day. Similarly, for a capstone thesis or project, if it doesn’t feel good from the start, it probably isn’t going to get better. So I really want people to invest their time and energy in things that they love and are passionate about, and about which they actually care to find out the answers. I want students to find something that they actually want to embrace–in the coursework they’re taking, the assignments they’re completing, and the thesis/capstone they choose. It goes back to the purpose of the Intro to Graduate Studies course–its purpose is to push people on semester one to get honest about what they care about, and figure out what they care about so they don’t waste their time.

The last thing I would mention is, I encourage people interested in our program to just call us up. We welcome hearing from you, and having a real conversation about how we can help you achieve your goals.

Thank you, Dr. Guinn, for your excellent insight into the University of the Incarnate Word’s Master of Arts in Communication Arts!