About Dr. Yannick C. Atouba, Ph.D.: Yannick C. Atouba is the Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Communication at The University of Texas at El Paso, where he also teaches courses and conducts research as an Assistant Professor. As Director, he advises and supports students throughout the program, oversees recruitment and answers prospective applicants’ questions, and works with the admissions committee. The courses he teaches cover advanced topics in organizational communication, conflict mediation, and research methods. His research focuses on communication dynamics within organizations, as well as between different organizations, and the impact of these communications, particularly in the non-profit space.

Dr. Atouba earned his Bachelor of Science in Political Science and Public Administration with a minor in Sociology from the University of Buéa, and his Master of Science in Speech Communication from North Dakota State University. He earned his Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have an overview of your academic and professional background in communication, as well as your current responsibilities as Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Communication at The University of Texas at El Paso?

[Dr. Atouba] I got my Bachelor of Science degree in political science and public administration with a minor in sociology from the University of Buéa in Cameroon (the country I am from). After that, I came to the United States and I earned a Master of science degree in speech communication from North Dakota State University (NDSU), in Fargo, ND. Finally, I earned a Ph.D. in communication (with a specialization in organizational communication and organizational studies) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

As the Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Communication at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), I am in charge of general advising for the students in the program. As a result, every semester, I generally meet with each student in the program individually to discuss their progress, their difficulties, to help them select classes, to sign administrative forms that need to be signed by me, and to provide them guidance on various academic and professional (and sometimes even personal) matters. I also handle recruitment activities, and I work with an admission committee to evaluate applications to the program. Additionally, I am the person people contact whenever they have a question or need information about our graduate program.

I generally teach courses in organizational communication, Communication and conflict, and quantitative research methods. Although I conduct research in the general area of organizational science, the areas of communication I specialize in are organizational and corporate communication. My research focuses on (1) the factors that influence the formation, the evolution, and the outcomes of interorganizational relations, especially among nonprofits, and (2) the examination of organizational members’ behaviors and attitudes, and their impact on organizations and organizing. Essentially my research examines why, how, and how well nonprofits partner or work with other organizations to address a variety of social issues. Additionally, my research also examines how employees’ (or volunteers’) behaviors and attitudes influence organizations and vice versa (i.e., how organizations’ practices or strategies shape employees’ attitudes and behaviors). My interest in this area comes from the fact that organizations are ubiquitous and most of us spend significant amount of time every day working with or for them.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of Texas at El Paso’s Master of Arts in Communication 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. Atouba] The UTEP graduate Program in Communication offers a generalist master’s degree in that students are not required to specialize in any one area of communication, but instead can take courses throughout many of our interest areas. This flexibility enables them to craft the program of study that is most interesting to them and suitable to meet their specific needs and interests. In essence, students can choose to specialize in one or more areas of communication, and to do that, they generally develop an individualized course of study with the help of graduate faculty advisors. Our 15 distinguished graduate faculty members have expertise, offer courses, and conduct research in Intercultural and International Communication, Social Change/Advocacy/Justice, Cultural Studies, Rhetoric, Environmental Communication, Organizational Communication, Advertising, and Mass (Media) Communication. The academic training we provide our students enables them to better understand themselves and their environment, expand their professional horizons, pursue community-based projects, conduct and publish scholarly research, and prepare for Ph.D. programs.

Degree completion for the Master of Arts in Communication program requires 36 graduate course hours (six of which are thesis hours, if choosing the thesis option), and there are only three courses that all graduate students are required to take. These required courses include an introduction to graduate studies in communication course and two research methods courses (qualitative and quantitative research methods courses). For their remaining courses, students can choose whichever courses they want or need from our course offerings to meet their intellectual, academic, and professional goals. In addition, our students can earn up to six credit hours (basically 2 courses) from graduate courses offered outside the department.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students can choose to complete a master’s thesis or a project. Could you please elaborate on both of these options, and what they entail?

[Dr. Atouba] The thesis option is generally recommended for students who wish to get a background in intense research, such as students who intend to pursue a doctoral degree, or students who will be conducting research as part of their job. Our non-thesis option is designed to be more flexible and is tailored for students who don’t necessarily want to become scholars or researchers but are generally interested in expanding their knowledge or study of communication and its impact in our lives. Indeed, a thesis is generally a more intensive research endeavor than a project.

The Master’s thesis should demonstrate that the student/candidate is able to work in a scholarly manner and is well acquainted with major issues and scholarly literature on the subject of the thesis. It must make an original contribution to communication theory and scholarship. Essentially, a good thesis is thoroughly researched, reflects a good understanding of the communication literature on its topic (including gaps and limitations of that literature), demonstrates rigorous critical/analytical thinking and methodological rigor, provides scientifically valid results, includes thorough verification of knowledge claims, and is well written. A good thesis must be of publishable quality and must satisfy a committee of at least three members of the graduate faculty (two from the department of communication and one from another department).

The research project is generally shorter than a thesis and consists of extensive research on a particular problem/issue and a strict methodology. The master candidate conducting the project must demonstrate his/her ability to work independently in a scholarly manner, just as with a thesis. However, although the project should offer something original or useful in the field of research/practice it relates to, its primary aims are not to make theoretical contributions to communication research/scholarship. Much like the thesis, the master’s project will be evaluated by a committee of at least three members of the graduate faculty (two from the department of communication and one from another department).

[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of both the thesis and the non-thesis options must take and pass an oral examination. Could you describe what the oral examination involves, and how students can best prepare for it?

[Dr. Atouba] First, let me begin by saying that the format and/or structure of oral examinations may vary depending on the student’s committee. So, my general advice to graduate students is to make sure that they work with their committees, and especially their thesis advisor, to prepare for and determine the format/structure/process of their oral examinations.

That being said, in general, oral examinations involve a presentation by the student of the work or study (Thesis or project) that he or she conducted, followed by a series of questions and comments from the committee (at least 3 members of the graduate faculty, including one from outside the department) that the student has to answer. After that Q&A session, the student is generally excused so that the committee can have an evaluation meeting to discuss the student’s performance, to determine if the quality of the work completed by the student is sufficiently satisfactory to warrant a passing grade, and to determine which corrections (if any) may need to be completed by the student to have his or her thesis/project finally/formally approved.

When preparing for the oral examination, I often recommend that students take a step back and reflect on what led them to do what they did and what they wanted to accomplish through their thesis or project. I think it is important for students (and all scholars in general) to be able to tell a compelling story about what they did and put their work in perspective or situate their work/study and its contributions within a given domain/area (the ‘so what?’ question). I also often recommend that they prepare a one or two-page handout summarizing the key aspects or main points (for e.g., background, problem statement, purpose, argument/theoretical framework, hypotheses/research questions, methods, findings, contributions, future research, etc.) of their study for themselves and their committee members. Condensing a large investigation that took several months to complete into a 2-page document can be daunting, but it forces the student to review his or her work and to learn how to talk about it in simple terms. Finally, the student should also be able and prepared to explain/defend/justify all the choices (topical, analytical, theoretical, methodological, etc.) that he/she made in completing the thesis. Indeed, oral examinations often have a lot of ‘why’ questions.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in the University of Texas at El Paso’s Master of Arts in Communication 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. Atouba] Faculty mentorship plays a very important role in our graduate program. We currently have a great Faculty to student ratio (about 1 to 2) in our program. That’s because we are currently a relatively small program (about 25 graduate students) that’s expanding and growing each year. Such a great Faculty to student ratio enables students to benefit from several mentorship opportunities. Faculty mentors, as well as the director of graduate studies, help students navigate the challenges of graduate school life and they also help students in their intellectual, academic, and professional development. For instance, many of our graduates tend to become academic/educators themselves and they generally receive a lot of support and gain a lot of insight from faculty mentors. However, it is important to mention here that students are not imposed or assigned faculty mentors; faculty mentor-mentee relationships tend to develop organically, and most often at the request of the student.

In terms of how students can make the most of these mentorship opportunities, I would generally recommend at least two things. First, I would tell students to not be afraid of seeking out mentorship. Potential mentors aren’t generally going to go out of their way to seek out mentees if they don’t show initiative. Additionally, it often takes time to find the right fit for both parties, but finding it with a great ‘partner’ is well worth the effort. Second, it is important to keep in mind that the mentor-mentee relationship is a two-way stree–that is, mentees have responsibilities vis-à-vis their mentor(s) and themselves. It is important for mentees to have some ideas about the goals they want to achieve through the relationship, listen to advice and ask questions, and very importantly, to act on advice or resolutions achieved through interactions/conversations with the mentor. Essentially, mentees have to deliver tremendous value to their mentor(s) as well, and that entails keeping promises made, acting on good advice that’s received and providing feedback to the mentor about how well that’s working, working hard, and keeping regular meetings to check in.

In terms of career development resources and academic services, we generally work with the graduate school here at UTEP to provide a variety of professional workshops, trainings, writing retreats, fun activities (picnics, gatherings, etc.), and graduate student conferences to enable graduate students to succeed and thrive. In the department, we also provide continuous training and mentoring to our graduate teaching assistant and we also offer a graduate course (introduction to graduate studies in communication) to help ease students into the program and to equip them with some basic tools that they need to succeed in our department and in graduate studies in communication in general.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for the University of Texas at El Paso’s Master of Arts in Communication program?

[Dr. Atouba] As there are more and more students every year that try to obtain an education that enables them to thrive in an increasingly competitive job market, getting into graduate school, especially in attractive fields such as communication, is more competitive than ever. Below are a few recommendations that I have for prospective students that are considering applying to our graduate program.

First, it’s important to plan ahead and make sure that you (the prospective student/applicant) check the department’s website to review eligibility requirements and deadlines and determine if you meet them. Second, it’s very important to maintain a strong GPA overall, but especially in communication upper level courses. We generally expect a minimum GPA of 3.0 from applicants, but the higher the GPA, the better or more attractive your application is. Third, if possible, I would recommend that students gain some undergraduate research experience that they can highlight in their application statement. Although such research experience is not a requirement, it can help an application stand out. Fourth, take your time to prepare for the GRE (Graduate record Examination) or the MAT (Miller’s analogies test) to improve your chances of a high score.

If you are an international student whose native language is not English and who has not graduated from an American university, you’ll have to take the TOEFL (test of English as a foreign language) and you should strive to have a great score on it. Fifth, write an excellent personal statement. Through that statement, you are essentially introducing/presenting/advocating/making a case for yourself to the admissions committee. In your personal statement, you should convincingly examine/articulate why you want to go to grad school and pursue a Master’s degree in communication, discuss your research goals and academic/professional interests, and discuss why you would be a great student in the program. The personal statement may also the place where you discuss any potential weaknesses (e.g., low test scores, relatively low GPA, etc.) in your application, to explain or help put them in perspective. Finally, try to get strong letters of recommendation. In general, professors from whom you have taken multiple classes (and done well), and/or with whom you have worked or conducted research can write stronger letters of recommendation. I generally recommend that prospective students try to get letters of recommendations from qualified individuals who can attest to their ability to handle the rigors of graduate-level coursework/research.

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

[Dr. Atouba] It’s hard to say what’s unique about our program, as that would presume a great deal of knowledge about all other Master of Arts in Communication programs across the nation, which I simply do not have (although I know quite a few). I will say that there are a few factors that make our graduate program a strong graduate degree option for students. First, the faculty to student’s ratio (about 1 to 2) in our program is excellent and conducive to effective learning. Second, our program enables students to have a great deal of flexibility in crafting the program of study that is most interesting and suitable for them. Third, our program offers small classes, personalized attention, and both thesis and non-thesis options to students. Fourth, our graduate classes are generally offered in the evening, 6 PM to 8:45 PM on the UTEP campus (although some online offerings may be available). This scheduling is done to accommodate the needs of people who work full time, so that they can continue their education.

Given the flexibility that we provide our students, our graduate program is well suited to accommodate the needs of various students. Indeed, some of our students come to our program because they want to deepen their knowledge of the communication field with a view towards increasing their competitiveness in their professional field. However, others are more interested in research and wish to study communication at the doctorate level and pursue a career in academia. Our program provides paths for each of these types of students. It is up to the student to decide what he or she wants, and even when he/she may be unsure about what path makes the most sense (or may be thinking about a totally different path), I and the graduate faculty are there to provide them assistance and guidance. It is okay for students to be unsure and uncertain about their paths forward; all we ask is that they come with their curiosity and a strong commitment to learn, work hard, and succeed, and we’ll help them on their journey towards finding what’s right for them and achieving their goals. As a testament to our success in preparing students for various paths forward, our recent M.A. graduates in Communication have gone on to professional positions in a variety of fields, including teaching, research, public relations, business and others and several have gone on to doctoral programs in the Communication discipline.

Thank you, Dr. Atouba, for your excellent insight into The University of Texas at El Paso’s Master of Arts in Communication program!