About Erika Carlson: Erika Carlson has worked as a Medical Support Assistant for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs since 2017. Her job involves working directly with veterans to help solve their particular issues and connect them with the appropriate VA services. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Fresno City College, where she teaches undergraduate night classes.

Ms. Carlson earned her bachelor’s degree in communication from California State University, Fresno in 2015. She immediately returned to Fresno State to pursue her master’s degree, enrolling in the school’s Master of Arts in Communication program and working as a Graduate Teaching Associate during her studies.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?

[Erika Carlson] My background in higher education started in 2011 when I began a communication undergraduate program at Fresno State University. I excelled in the program because I loved and connected with the material I was learning. I made the Dean’s List during the Fall 2014 semester and the President’s List during the Spring 2015 semester. While attending school, I worked at my father’s medical office throughout the summers and at restaurants during the school year. I found that many of the communication concepts I learned in school applied to my jobs no matter how diverse they were. For example, at work I was able to utilize and develop my conflict resolution skills and my persuasive skills. I was comfortable communicating with patients and customers about a variety of uneasy topics like health problems and incorrect food orders. In my opinion, the communication field is very applicable to many different jobs and career paths.

When I completed my bachelor’s degree in 2015, I realized that I wanted to continue my education and pursue a master’s degree in communication from Fresno State. During my time in graduate school, I was afforded the opportunity to work as a Graduate Teaching Associate and teach my own undergraduate communication classes at the University. I loved this opportunity because I gained self-confidence and work experience that would help me with my career in the future.

Upon graduation in 2017, I began working full time as a Medical Support Assistant at the Department of Veterans Affairs. I work with patients to problem solve and connect them with the appropriate VA representative or department. My background in communication has allowed me to pick up a variety of work tasks on top of those required by my position. For example, I have become involved in the Incentive Awards Committee and I host a monthly awards ceremony to honor those employees and volunteers who go above and beyond to serve Veterans. I serve as a timekeeper for my department and I document minutes at multiple different professional meetings. I am also employed as Adjunct Faculty at Fresno City College where I teach a few undergraduate night classes. Overall, my education and hard work has made my career dreams become a reality.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in communication, and why did you ultimately choose the Master of Arts in Communication program at California State University, Fresno?

[Erika Carlson] I decided to pursue a master’s degree in communication at Fresno State because when I completed my undergraduate degree I wanted to learn more about the communication discipline and had such a positive undergraduate experience. I felt as though my undergraduate studies allowed me to dip my toes into the study of communication but a master’s program would allow me to dive deeper into the discipline. I was familiar with some of the faculty at Fresno State and I was advised to apply for the master’s program as well as the Graduate Teaching Associate position. One thing that attracted me to the program at Fresno State was that I would be able to attend school and work at the same location, immediately apply the skills and theories I was learning, and I would be able to make a decent living simultaneously.

When I started the program, I had not yet pinpointed the exact skills that I wanted to obtain. I went into the program hoping that I would figure out what topics and concepts sparked my interest early on in my studies so that I would be able to focus on them later. In one of my very first graduate seminars, I realized that I have a passion for Feminist theory and I also found organizational communication to be very practical and applicable to what I wanted to do after graduation. Post-graduation I knew that I wanted to work for a government organization and continue to lecture undergraduate courses simultaneously. It was important for me to focus my papers and projects on topics that I was interested in because graduate school can be very rigorous and challenging, so focusing on concepts that I loved helped me with getting through the tough parts of the rigorous program.

[MastersinCommunications.com] How is Fresno State’s program structured, and what concepts did the program emphasize? What skills and strategies did you learn in your classes, and how did you apply them to course assignments?

[Erika Carlson] Fresno State’s program is structured to provide students with a deep understanding of communication-based research methodologies and theoretical frameworks. The program is geared to allow students to choose what areas or topics they want to focus on to help with their career and educational goals. The program emphasized rhetoric and encouraged students to explore other areas of personal interest. Many individuals in my cohort took a course or two in other areas outside of the communication field to broaden the scope of materials that they were learning. For example, I took an Africana Studies course which allowed me to explore Womanism, Kwanzaa, and many other topics that aren’t frequently discussed in communication seminars. This class was very inspiring and ended up being one of my favorite classes that I have ever taken.

One very important skill that I learned in the program was time management. There would be weeks where I had over 500 pages to read, over 20 pages to write, two classes to teach, 50 papers to grade, and 15 emails that needed a response. The program taught me that I am capable of completing an overwhelming amount of work as long as I manage my time appropriately and take one task at a time. I applied this skill to course assignments by keeping a detailed calendar of how I would spend my time each day and I broke assignments up to make them less overwhelming. I also learned how to conduct a successful rhetorical analysis which provided me the opportunity to present my research at the 2017 Western States Communication Association annual conference. Fresno State’s program encourages students to become involved in the discipline’s many organizations and conferences. Many people in my cohort presented their research papers at these conferences which helped all of us with our professional presentation skills as well as our professional development. After conferences, we were encouraged to discuss what we learned about in course lectures and assignments.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please describe your experience preparing for and taking your comprehensive capstone examinations? What were the components of the exams, and were they tailored to your individual course of study? What advice do you have for students in terms of preparing for their comprehensive exams?

[Erika Carlson] My comprehensive examination experience was nerve-wracking, exciting and transforming. Fresno State’s program required that those who choose comprehensive examinations as their culminating experience complete an out-of-house paper, three in-house essay style responses to questions from committee members, and an oral defense of both the out-of-house paper and the in-house responses.

The out-of-house paper requirements consisted of independently writing (without the help or guidance of others) an essay that demonstrates the student’s mastery of the chosen communication concepts and application of those concepts. My out-of-house essay ended up being about 30 pages with an additional six pages of references.

The in-house question responses consisted of three different questions related to topics of the student’s interest. The questions are written by committee members and are sealed until the student opens them and begins writing their timed responses. The main in-house question allows students three hours to write a response and cite scholars and their research from memory. The other two questions allow students two hours to write their responses, again citing scholars and information from memory. I chose to space my three in-house questions out so that I would start on a Friday, have my next question on the following Monday, and the final question on the following Wednesday. The entirety of the comprehensive examination process was created and discussed by my committee and I to tailor it to my needs and goals. The entire process took about 6-8 weeks of preparation and intense studying.

The advice that I would give to future students who choose to do comprehensive examinations as their culminating experience would be to clear their calendars of other life events around the time that they will need to complete the exams. This will help them focus solely on the examination process and will help keep their minds clear from outside life events and distractions. I would also recommend making flash cards and studying for way longer than one may think they need to study. There is no such thing as being overprepared for your comprehensive examinations. I chose an Advisor and committee that provided me with tons of support throughout the entire process. We discussed which topics I would be questioned on, which articles I should study, and the details of what I needed to do during the time that I was given to answer the questions. I cannot stress enough the importance of having open communication with committee members and asking any and all questions that one may have prior to completing the examinations.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from Fresno State’s Master of Arts in Communication program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?

[Erika Carlson] My comprehensive examination defense was an intense interview that lasted over an hour. I was questioned by my Advisor and two of my committee members about my out-of-house paper and my in-house essay responses. The majority of the questions were two or three-part questions and knowing that the quality of my answers would determine whether or not I receive my degree was very overwhelming. What I did not realize at the time was that in my professional career, I would take part in similar interviews quite frequently. When I interviewed for a new position at the VA, the meeting was very similar to my comprehensive examination defense. The interviewers commented on how well prepared I was for the Federal Performance Based question interview and it felt great to have that experience from grad school.

Another concept that I found very helpful was the conflict resolution skills that I learned in seminars, especially in my organizational communication seminar. I have learned that certain professional discussions and requests have more successful resolutions when they are in a face-to-face setting as opposed to a non-face-to-face setting. I constantly speak with upset patients and I am able to use my knowledge and skills to help them reach a happily agreed upon outcome. There are also many conflicts that occur within departments and work place settings that I am able to manage due to my education.

My training in rhetorical theory, rhetorical criticism, and communication theory and methods has helped me become a better instructor because I am knowledgeable about these subjects and can discuss them with my undergraduate students. I also use the classroom to teach them life skills to be successful in college and in a career. Having had strong mentors, it inspires me to mentor my students. I do feel as though the program at Fresno State prepared me for my career in academia as well as my career with the Federal Government.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting the MA in Communication program at California State University, Fresno? More broadly, what advice would you give students who are either considering or starting a master’s in communication program, whether it be at Fresno State or another university?

[Erika Carlson] The advice that I would give students who are considering starting a master’s program in communication would be to believe in yourself and never give up. It may be extremely overwhelming at many points in time, but that is part of the process. Graduate school, for me at least, was a culture shock and it took some time to get used to the challenges. I think one big takeaway that I got from Fresno State’s Master’s in Communication program was that sometimes you have to be thrown into the deep end of a pool to learn how to swim. I also learned the importance of faculty and cohort support. Now, I can look back and appreciate the entire experience because it made me a stronger person and made me realize that I am capable of doing anything that I set my mind to.

The social connections that can be made in graduate school are priceless. I would recommend that students get involved in their programs, interact with faculty and cohort members, and attend as many communication conferences as possible. I would recommend befriending all cohort members because some of my fondest memories were made with my cohort members. Not only did we do study sessions during crazy hours of the night, but we were also there to support each other and keep each other on track in regard to deadlines and assignment details. These connections have also helped in teaching at the community college level as a Master’s graduate. Becoming involved in conferences allows individuals to network and they are also very inspiring for setting career goals and helping others.

It is so important for graduate students to choose an advisor and committee members who possess the qualities that the student needs to be successful. I learned to surround myself with people who possess the leadership qualities that I needed to help me get through the program successfully. For example, my Advisor was very supportive of my educational career and she was able to provide me with deadlines which is what makes me work harder. We had similar work styles and that helped us to coordinate accordingly and come to mutual agreements. My Advisor helped me to believe in myself and always offered me positive encouragement when I needed it most. I also had a “cheerleader” committee member who was full of positive energy and would take time to talk to me not only about my academic questions but also my dreams and career goals. Another one of my committee members had similar research interests so when we would have discussions they were very detailed, interesting, and educational. Without my Advisor and committee members, I would not have had such an amazing experience in graduate school.

Thank you, Ms. Carlson, for your excellent insights on California State University, Fresno’s Master of Arts in Communication program!