About Rebecca L. Cooney, M.S.: Rebecca L. Cooney is a communication practitioner with more than 20 years of experience in the field of professional communications. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Strategic Communication at Washington State University’s The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, and remains active in industry through consulting, grants, and fellowships. She teaches courses in public relations, integrated communications, and digital media. She is the director of the Online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program, faculty advisor for WSU Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity, research associate for the Center of Excellence for Natural Drug Interaction Research (NaPDI) grant, and former faculty advisor for the PRSSA chapter at WSU, a position she held for five years. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in organizational communications and a master of science in communications.

About Christine Curtis, M.A.: Christine Curtis is an instructor and graduate coordinator for the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. She manages registration, advising, and mentoring of three graduate programs, including the Master of Arts in Communication and Ph.D. in Communication programs, with areas of emphasis in the study of health communication, media, society, politics, and science communication. She also oversees student advising for the Online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication. In 2015, the Associated Students of WSU (ASWSU) recognized her as the Staff Member of the Year. Her research interests are in crisis and science communication, and in addition to her duties in registration and advising, she teaches public speaking and crisis communication. She holds a bachelor of science degree in communication with a minor in business, and master of arts degree in communication.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Washington State University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what key concepts and skills do students learn in the Media & Health Promotion; Media, Society, & Politics; and Science & Environmental Communication concentrations?

[Christine Curtis] Our campus-based Master of Arts in Communication program, which is located on our Pullman campus, is comprised of 27 credits. The core includes three classes: Communication Theory, Quantitative Research, and a methods course that students can take from within or outside of the Department, with their advisor’s approval.

Students are given a temporary advisor the first semester they are admitted. They attend a colloquium every week to meet the faculty and start selecting an advisor early in their second semester of study. The advisor will provide guidance on courses to take, research areas, and other resources for students. The advisor will also recommend another faculty member to serve on the student’s committee. This committee oversees students’ work on their master’s thesis or comprehensive examination, which is the final graduation requirement of the program.

Our program’s courses focus on three core areas:

  • Media & Health Promotion: Courses in this area focus on how media messaging affects health behavior. Students learn how mainstream and alternative media both is a product of and influences the individual and collective health of people within a community.
  • Media, Society, and Politics: Classes in this area examine how communication forms and impacts political institutions and can create strong civic engagement. Students examine political communication from different perspectives, as well as how human communication, technology, and media intersect with human decision-making.
  • Science & Environmental Communication: These courses explore the role that scientific and environmental communication play in resource management, hazard awareness and avoidance, and the development of sound environmental and scientific regulations. Students learn how to develop educational campaigns, evaluate the risk perception of their target audiences, and analyze media.

After their core classes, students who choose to do a thesis must take 12-15 credits from within the College of Communication, and between 3-6 credits from outside the College. Students who select the non-thesis option must choose 15-18 credits from within the College of Communication, and 6-9 credits from outside the College. Regardless of their chosen final graduation requirement, students can craft their focus as they see fit from between the three focus areas listed above, and their remaining credits are taken up by their thesis (or for those taking comprehensive exam, by additional coursework), and the graduate colloquia that they are required to attend.

Elective courses at Edward Murrow College of Communication cover topics such as health communication campaigns, intercultural and international communication, persuasion and social influence, science communication, digital and multimedia content production, political communication, and mass media and its impact on social change.

Three of the classes that students take in the program have to be methods. The expectation is that students are proficient in qualitative and quantitative research methods, and that they have taken a data analysis course and a survey or research design course as well in preparation for their culminating experience. This program is very research methods-heavy. And while some of the people that go into industry are doing market analysis, statistical modeling, and those kinds of roles, most of our students in the Master of Arts in Communication program go on to pursue a doctorate degree, teach, or conduct academic research.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you elaborate on the final graduation requirement for the Master of Arts in Communication program? What are the differences between the thesis and the non-thesis options?

[Christine Curtis] As mentioned previously, students can choose to complete a master’s thesis or a comprehensive examination. The thesis option requires 27 graded credits and a minimum of three research credits. Students develop a research inquiry under the guidance of their advisor and their research committee, which consists of their advisor, one other faculty member from Edward Murrow College of Communication, and a faculty member from either inside or outside the College. Students must also orally defend their thesis before their committee.

The non-thesis option requires 30 graded credits and three credits of non-thesis based research credits, as well as the exam. The comprehensive exam consists of one question from each of the committee members (so three questions total) to demonstrate their comprehensive knowledge of communication from their coursework. Committee members tailor their exam questions to students’ course of study. Each exam question takes about 3-4 hours, and then students have an oral defense within 2 weeks of the last exam question.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Washington State University’s Online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what key concepts and skills do students learn?

[Rebecca Cooney] Our MA in Strategic Communication program was launched in 2014, and at present we have 123 students, and about 119 alumni now. The program is 100 percent online, and students are never required to visit campus to complete their degree program. From a geographical perspective, our student body is incredibly diverse, with students from six countries, 21 states, and 60 cities. This diversity is also reflected in their professional and academic backgrounds, with some students coming from professional communication fields, and others from science and tech, health communication, government and non-profit. We also have several students who are veterans of the military and spouses of military members.

Our program succeeds in preparing a diverse student body for a wide variety of careers. Upon graduating, our alumni have worked in such settings as high-tech, entertainment and events, nonprofits, politics and science, health communications, human resources, multimedia, and government relations.

The program itself is comprised of ten courses, or 30 credits. Four courses make up the Professional Core, which students take first: Professional Multimedia Content Creation, Crisis Communication in Global Contexts, Ethics for Professionals, and Research Methods for Professionals. In these courses, students learn about how to address crisis situations organizationally, locally, and internationally through sound and timely communication. They also learn about communication research methods that are relevant to industry professionals, ethical considerations in the communications space, and multimedia skills such as the Adobe suite of products.

Students then progress to five courses that focus specifically on strategic communication, including Persuasion for Professional Communicators, Creative Media Strategies & Techniques, Professional Digital Content Promotion, Consumer Behavior and Brand development, and Professional Marketing Communication Management and Campaigns. In the media strategies course, students learn how to write for earned, owned, and paid channels. Digital content promotion covers website and social media campaigns, while branding and consumer behavior focuses on market research and campaign design and testing.

Students’ last course is the culminating experience or capstone project/portfolio preparation and presentation course. In this course, students are not required to complete a thesis or a research project. Rather, it is very industry skills and portfolio focused, in that students are given five different prompts that are supposed to demonstrate their competencies across the curriculum, and they must respond to these prompts and also develop an online portfolio that they present to their advisor and committee.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you elaborate on the online technologies that the MA in Strategic Communication program uses to facilitate students’ engagement with course concepts, as well as their interactions with course peers and faculty?

[Rebecca Cooney] We do facilitate peer-to-peer and peer-to-faculty interactions through the way the courses are designed. We have a discussion board set up for all the classes students take. But honestly it is really the students who take it to a whole other level–no online technology can replace the impact that a strong and engaged community has in creating productive discussions. While we facilitate the discussions in terms of the infrastructure of the course and with the discussion posts, and by giving them points for these posts, they have really adapted it and taken it on as part of their identity within that course.

Throughout all of their courses, students are expected to participate in discussion forums. Students are given prompts usually weekly, and the prompts are related to the subject matter of the course. And then they are asked to actually engage with each other as part of the discussion forum or they will not earn full points. It is actually the most incredible thing to watch as an instructor in those discussion spaces because students’ engagement is really off the charts. We have found that our students really enjoy talking with each other and interacting with one another, and they come from so many backgrounds that they are never bored with each other and can discuss topics for hours. We don’t technically have a cohort model, but many of our students do end up going through the same classes together and crossing over in classes frequently, which yields a pretty cohesive community.

Most of the courses in the program are designed to have two-week lesson blocks. The lesson blocks each have some level of reading, some assignments that involve writing, a discussion forum where students earn participation points, and a final deliverable such as a final paper or project. Leading up to the deliverable are practice activities, which are sometimes called micro-projects. Within each two-week block students are also watching video lectures and completing assigned readings such as articles or an excerpt from a textbook. We’ve actually begun moving away from textbooks because our faculty like to stay pretty current.

Because the concepts and topics students learn about in class are so current, students love talking about them with their classmates, and also connect really well with each other as peers in the industry who come up against the same challenges and advancements in the field. And we love seeing that. The forums allow students a space to be more social, and our faculty regularly host live webinars to give students the chance to interact with them more face-to-face.

The webinars are fully interactive. They are not simply faculty reading from PowerPoint slides. We use FAQs as a starting point to begin a discussion amongst the students, and then students are free to ask questions of the instructor and their peers. These webinars are students’ chance to get candid insights from their instructors, independent of our structured video lectures.

Both within discussion forums and by email, faculty interact daily with students, and when students need additional support our faculty are happy to hop on the phone or video conference with students. All our faculty have virtual office hours as well, which can also include Skype calls if necessary.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could we have some more information on the capstone project course for students of the Online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program?

[Rebecca Cooney] The capstone course is the final course that students take in the program, and requires students to complete a comprehensive exam and a professional online portfolio. For their capstone, each student is assigned to a committee that consists of at least one research faculty from Edward Murrow College of Communication, typically one clinical faculty member from the College, and then me as I am the director of the program.

For the comprehensive exam, students receive a set of five prompts that they then work on for two weeks. These prompts can be questions, case studies, or activities/projects. The test is open book and students must complete the questions individually. Through these five prompts, which vary year to year, students are expected to demonstrate their competency in research, crisis communication, persuasion, professional ethics, branding and organizational identity, consumer behavior, multimedia content creation, multi-channel storytelling, and integrated campaign strategy and development. After students submit their responses, each of the prompts is reviewed by the three committee members against a rubric, and then their score is averaged.

The purpose of the prompts is to have students demonstrate that they have completed the learning objectives of their courses, have a full grasp of the major theories, principles, and methods discussed, and can apply what they have learned to real tasks and initiatives they may encounter in the workplace.

The way these prompts are structured, students are typically given a scenario and a set of smaller questions asking them about how they would approach certain issues or challenges. Students are expected to make cogent arguments and recommendations that are backed up with evidence, support material, quotes, statistics, and so forth. Sometimes they are asked to create original digital content like social media posts, online content, or a communication strategy.

For example, for students’ crisis communication prompt, we usually give them a real-life scenario such as the Flint water crisis, the killing of the gorilla at the Cincinnati zoo, and the hurricanes the United States has experienced this year. Students are asked to analyze the way that relevant organizations, the media, and/or politicians responded, and their effectiveness in managing public reactions.

We ask students questions such as, “How did the organization respond? How did the stakeholders respond? Would you distinguish this as a crisis or a risk?” We then ask them to develop part of a strategic communication marketing plan for moving forward, and to develop their crisis team.

Students also work on their online graduate portfolio throughout the capstone course. The graduate portfolio’s purpose is to help students with the job search post-graduation, so they have an online presence that illustrates their qualifications and experience. The graduate portfolio is a website comprised of an About Me page, a resume and work history, a contact page, and an index showcasing six completed assignments that represent students’ learning outcomes and skills acquired through our curriculum. We want students to show the products they have created over the course of their program, as well as work on solidifying their personal brand.

I check in with students as they work on their portfolios, and students are also encouraged to participate in discussion forums with peers and their capstone instructor for feedback and relevant insights. At the end of the semester, the committee does a full assessment against a rubric. Students must pass both the comprehensive exam and the portfolio components of the capstone course in order to pass.

[MastersinCommunications.com] How are the MA in Communication and the MA in Strategic Communication distinct from one another, and what should students take into consideration if they are deliberating between the two programs?

[Rebecca Cooney] These two programs are quite distinct from each other, and the students that are interested in the on-campus degree are typically not interested in the online M.A., and vice-versa. The Master’s in Strategic Communication attracts that professional base that wants to stay in the industry, and has no interest really in doing in-depth research. Most of them are around 30 years old. For the online M.A. in Strategic Communication, we require them to have three full years of work experience before they can apply, so the youngest people in that program tend to be around the 25-26 year range.

[Christine Curtis] Whereas with the traditional on-campus master’s degree, the students are generally more within the 23-28 year range. We get a decent number of students that come directly from undergrad into the on-campus master’s program, or they are returning after a year or two off. These students are invested in conducting in-depth research and preparing for further study at the doctorate level or teaching at institutions of higher education. While some of our graduates work in industry, the main focus is on research, pedagogy, and advanced communication theory.

The Master of Arts in Strategic Communication is distinct from our campus-based Master of Arts in Communication in that it is not a research-focused degree. It is an industry-focused degree program that will not prepare students for further study at the Ph.D. level.

The Master of Arts in Communication is steeped in research and is much more rooted in theory, and it also gives students the opportunity to take on teaching assistantships. After graduating, students can certainly take the knowledge that they learn and apply it to an industry position, but it is not a direct application like it would be for graduates of our MA in Strategic Communication program.

Students of the Master of Arts in Communication program are actually designing surveys and conducting focus groups and the level of their research is at a much higher level than the research that students of the MA in Strategic Communication conduct. Those students might create a survey, but it’s going to be industry-focused, anecdotal, and not as rooted in academic theory.

[Rebecca Cooney] For the strategic communication program, all of the assignments are either based on some level on case study whitepapers that can be either industry-specific or academic, but it’s often industry-specific. The courses have students deal with real-life scenarios, and often they are asked to pull from their existing or past work experience when solving the issues presented to them in their assignments. So there is a lot of integration of their work and their course of study, and by encouraging students to incorporate their degree program into their current work situation and use it as an opportunity to put together proposals, presentations, campaign concepts, etc., students can gain a deeper understanding of the concepts they learn in class, while also adding more value to their company.

For example, in the crisis communications course that students take in the strategic communication program, they actually have to write a crisis communication plan, and many students choose their organization of employment. The course is designed around them understanding the difference between a risk and a crisis, and how to communicate that effectively. They will take an organization–most often their organization–and design the entire crisis communication plan.

Students work all semester to build that plan, and by the end of the class, they have a 20-plus-page document that details a crisis communication plan for that organization in the case of a particular emergency. They have an actual deliverable product that they can then bring back the organization and say, “I think we should implement this,” or, “I would like to look at how we can make this a realistic option for our group.”

[Christine Curtis] In the Pullman campus-based MA in Communication, students also take a crisis communication course, but it is structured differently. They spend the first six weeks looking at different crisis communication theories and all of the research surrounding crisis and risk communication. And then sometimes they move to a more practical application, but most of the time they’re designing a study that they are going to complete or a research proposal to further expand on those theories of crisis communication. They ask questions such as, “Why would we use this type of messaging in a particular crisis, as opposed to a different kind?” and use their first six weeks to learn the theory and the methods necessary to design a proposal and conduct research related to crisis communication. So very similar titles for the class, but the curriculum and experience is going to be drastically different between our two programs.

[Rebecca Cooney] Another example would be in the COMSTRAT 563 course that I am teaching right now. In this class, the central aim is to develop branded messaging for either a fictional organization that students create, or the organization at which they work. Then they are asked to create a website and social media channels. They run a campaign that includes HTML, e-mail, and social media content strategies, among other things, and engage in original digital content creation using Adobe, Spark, and several other technologies.

I have one student, for example, who works for United Way of Greater Los Angeles, and so for the course she is creating a new digital presence for one of their emerging Leaders Donors societies. She is developing the entire website and social media structure, will design online campaigns, and then be able to have these elements as a presentation package for her stakeholders.

Another one of my students is doing a Meals on Wheels special initiative out of Spokane, Washington. And another student who works at Riverside Christian School is trying to create an entire editorial calendar and digital framework for the organization that does not currently exist. The online M.A. curriculum is extremely applied. Students take concepts and learn about things that they can then put into deliverables that they take back to their organization.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes the online MA in Strategic Communication unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Rebecca Cooney] One of the major things I would like to call out as being unique about our program is the fact that all of our faculty are at Pullman or one of our sister campuses in Everett or Vancouver, Washington. All of our faculty are Edward Murrow College of Communication faculty, and so all the classes and prompts are designed by people in-house. Whereas some of the programs that are competing in the space are outsourced to companies that provide the technology, advising, and instructors to the university. In contrast, everything about our program, from the courses to advising, is run in-house.

[Christine Curtis] The MBA at WSU is an online MBA program, and they have Pearson Group running their program. And so teachers are not necessarily connected with WSU. It is really important to us to keep it controlled with us in our space so we know how the program is doing, how students are performing, and what their needs are. We can connect with our students, and give them the best experience possible.

When schools contract out their classes to instructors who are outside of the actual program, you have instructors who are not familiar with the parent institution, and who do not know that resources and research opportunities that are available to students. We always want to make sure that we are in touch with our students, so we can direct them to the resources needed, whether that is tech support or counseling services.

If they need help with accommodations in classes, we want to know exactly who needs them and how we can get those resources to them. So our level of touch and engagement with our students is really high because it is a huge priority for us. As advisors and administrators of the program, we have direct contact with students frequently. If we find students are not contributing to discussion forums, or are not turning in assignments, we contact them and do our best to figure out how to support them.

For example, we had one student pretty early on who stopped communicating with faculty and classmates. We started making phone calls and sending e-mails, and found out that she was a disabled individual who was unable to get her disability processed, and was currently homeless. And so she was using the library as public access for computers to try to complete her assignments, but she was really struggling. We were able to connect her with some resources on campus so she could find temporary housing, and a meal plan. WSU does have some connections over there to be able to do that.

Those are the types of things that we were able to find pretty early on as we are in close communication with faculty about how their classes are going. It’s the biggest benefit of not being a third-party source. Many large online education companies use broad-based advising for large programs. But the challenge with that is those individuals who are serving as advisors are not as closely linked to or invested in the program. That kind of advising can be very formulaic and more about checking boxes instead of dealing with actual humans who have human issues and needs.

Our MA in Strategic Communication program is also unique because it combines the reputability of our institution with a truly affordable program. All of our degrees are fully accredited and our instruction is high quality and constantly being updated to account for advancements in the field. But the cost of our program is really affordable, and therefore accessible to students of diverse professional backgrounds and financial means. If you look at some of our competing programs, which I think are great programs, their cost can sometimes be really prohibitive. Our students get to pay the in-state tuition rate as online students, and so the estimated total cost of the program is $18,000.00, which is about half of what our competing institutions charge.

So we are not sacrificing any of the rigor of the degree by being able to offer the degree at that price. Our affordability has enabled our program to appeal to a broader group of students, and we are able to recruit really awesome, engaged students into the program who create the community that makes our program so special and beneficial.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes the campus-based MA in Communication unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students interested in communication research and pedagogy?

[Christine Curtis] For our Pullman-based Master of Arts in Communication program, one of the primary draws is our faculty and their research expertise. The students who come into our campus-based program are committing to two years of intensive training and practice in communication research, and the mentorship and guidance they experience thanks to our faculty is truly stellar.

The community here is extremely collegial. Everybody has the best interests of the student in mind. In some institutions, it’s really hard to get certain committee members to work together. There are certain lines drawn in the sand. If you’re a health communication person, you cannot work with people in political communication, etc. That doesn’t happen here. Everybody is always open to new research ideas and trying to facilitate what’s going to work best for the student. And we highly encourage crossover in research areas. So if somebody is interested in health communication but also is interested in science communication, we encourage them to blend those two together and choose committee members who will facilitate those research interests.

The Ph.D. students and the master’s students take classes together, and the Ph.D. students tend to mentor the master’s students and take them under their wing. Our master’s students benefit from this collaborative environment where the Ph.D. candidates are showing them the depth and breadth of research that are possible in their field(s) of interest.

I am actually an alumnus of the Pullman-based master’s program. I graduated about five years ago. And I did not realize that some programs are super competitive and cutthroat, and the students did not get along with each other. I would not have thrived in that environment. When I came here, I had no idea what I was doing as a 22-year-old recent undergraduate. And the Ph.D. students stepped in and told me, “Let’s sit down together and go over everything so you know what to expect.” And throughout my two years there, they helped me through the tougher aspects of the program and encouraged me. That level of interaction and engagement was so helpful, and we really try to facilitate that through both the Pullman-based master’s and Ph.D. programs. The students socialize with each other, and share research ideas. They work on projects together. It’s a really great family environment for them to come into.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What career resources are available to students of both programs?

[Rebecca Cooney] The WSU alumni center is a tremendous resource for all students, online or on-campus. A designated career counselor housed in WSU’s Global Campus works directly with online students on career planning, including students of the MA in Strategic Communication. Graduates also have access to WSU Alumni services and resources, as well as various alumni networks at both the university and college level. As the program is currently me and Christy and then the faculty who teach classes, based on pure bandwidth we do not provide formal career services at Edward Murrow College of Communication. That said, career development is integrated into both the online MA in Strategic Communication and into the campus-based MA in Communication.

[Christine Curtis] For both of these programs, the expectation is that students have an idea of where they want to end up. For the MA in Strategic Communication, many of our students are already fully employed and looking to transition or advance in their field. The capstone course is, in many ways, an extended, culminating exercise in career development. And for the campus-based MA in Communication, students that come in knowing they either want to end up moving on to earn a Ph.D., teaching in higher education such as at community colleges, or engaging in industry work. So those are their three options, and that dictates their focus in the program and how their advisor guides them.

A communication degree is incredibly versatile in a lot of ways. If people go to law school, they know they will be a lawyer. If they get a CPA, they know that they are going to be an accountant. Communication doesn’t work that way. So we have some people from our MA in Communication program who have gone on to Ph.D programs. And we have some who are doing health communication campaigns for nonprofit agencies. And our strategic communication graduate students work across many different fields in many different roles.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for either the MA in Communication or the MA in Strategic Communication?

[Rebecca Cooney] The Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program requires three years of post-undergraduate work and life experience. Our courses and the discussions require students to operate at a very high level. Early on in the program, we did let a few very young and inexperienced students in, and they were by far the most challenging to manage as well as the least benefited, because they were not at the same level of experience as their peers who had been in the work force for several to many years. As a result, the complex coursework and lively, advanced discussion forums were hard for them to engage with. We evaluate all applications holistically, however, incorporating consideration of undergraduate GPA, statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, and work experience.

We pay very close attention to the personal statement, and ask that students clarify for us why they want to attend our program, what their professional and personal goals are, how our program fits into their career plan, and the perspectives, talents, and qualifications they anticipate contributing to our student community.

[Christine Curtis] For the Master of Arts in Communication program, students must have a bachelor’s degree with a minimum overall GPA of 3.25 in their last two years of undergraduate coursework. They are also required to submit GRE scores from a test taken within the past three years. Average scores of our most successful applicants in the past year were 155 for Verbal, 153 for Quantitative, and 3.8 for analytical writing. International students must also take the TOEFL.

Three letters of recommendation that speak to students’ academic abilities and capacity for in-depth research are also required, as is a resume and a 500-word personal statement that explains the applicant’s reasons for wanting to attend our program. Applicants are also encouraged to submit supplemental writing samples or other materials that they feel may enhance their application.

Thank you, Professor Rebecca Cooney and Ms. Christine Curtis, for your excellent insight into Washington State University’s Master of Arts in Communication program and online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program!