About Caleb Malik: Caleb Malik works as a Digital Marketing Strategist for Casual Astronaut, a content marketing agency in Phoenix, Arizona. He has worked in the field of digital marketing since graduate school, beginning with an internship at a web design agency during his final semester of study. In addition to his full-time position, Mr. Malik has taught at Phoenix College, and handles freelance work for a variety of other clients.

Mr. Malik earned a Bachelor of Science in Organizational Leadership from Illinois State University (ISU) in 2013. He returned to ISU to complete his master’s degree, graduating from the school’s general communication graduate program in 2015.

Interview Questions

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

[Caleb Malik] I earned my undergraduate and master’s degrees in communication at Illinois State University. First earning my undergraduate degree in organizational leadership, followed by my Master’s degree, which was a general communication studies degree. I’ve been working in digital marketing since graduation, and it’s a career that started with an internship I had at a web design agency in Bloomington-Normal during my final semester of graduate school. That internship involved writing content for websites, and it worked as a springboard for my career. I now work at a content marketing agency as a digital marketing strategist. In addition to my full-time professional work, I’ve also taught classes at a community college here in Phoenix and I’ve taken on additional freelance work for a variety of clients.

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

[Caleb Malik] A master’s degree in communication wasn’t something that I actively pursued initially. I was approaching graduation and had heard rumblings that our program might be hiring a new academic advisor, so I approached our program director about the opening. He basically told me that I needed to have a master’s for the position, but that I should apply for the master’s program. He outlined the assistantship program, which included the opportunity to teach courses in the school. I was excited about the prospect of teaching, and with tuition covered by the assistantship, I felt like it was a great opportunity to get additional education at little cost.

With the teaching opportunity that was afforded me, I went into the program with the plan to get teaching experience, do well in my courses, get into a PhD program, graduate from that program, and become a full-time faculty member. So, that was the initial plan, but as I was entering my second year of the program, I recognized the sacrifice it requires to become a professor. Another three to four years of school — and all the time it takes to get tenure — seemed like too much. And it wasn’t that I didn’t love school, I always loved being in class and learning, but that just seemed like too long to wait to start making an income and having stability.

In respect to that, one piece of advice I’d give to new students would be to have the outline of a backup plan. Not because you’ll fail necessarily, but because you might change your mind. So, in my case, I made the firm decision to go into industry around October or November of my second year, at which point I needed to get some type of internship. This put me behind the eight ball a bit, and added a lot of stress that didn’t need to be there.

[MastersinCommunications.com] How is ISU’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?

[Caleb Malik] The program at Illinois State University has a really broad structure that, to a certain extent, allows you to build the program that best fits your needs. There are really only a few requirements for graduation, though these may have changed slightly since I graduated in 2015. First, there are two classes you have to take — a general theories course and quantitative research course. Second, you have to complete a culminating project. This can be one of three options, including:

  • A traditional thesis (quantitative, qualitative or rhetorical)
  • A 39-hour project (comprehensive project such as a PR plan, marketing plan, etc.)
  • A documentary thesis

Third, as you would expect, there’s a requirement for total hours of coursework you need to complete, and that varies based on your final project. If you write a traditional thesis or complete a documentary thesis, you take a few less classes than if you complete the 39-hour project (named after the number of course hours you complete when you go this route).

You can also take a limited number of senior-level, undergraduate courses, which you have to supplement with an additional project. So, for example, if you were really interested in interpersonal communication, but there was no interpersonal communication graduate course that semester, you could take the senior-level course and write an additional paper or research study on a topic of your choosing, making it equivalent to a graduate course. Likewise, you can take courses in other departments with the approval of the professor teaching that course and your advisor. So if you wanted to take a marketing course, you could find one in that department to take.

I would add that, while the program allows flexibility, the coursework skews towards a PhD route. Essentially every class, in my experience, required that you write the first half of a research study or that you complete a research study. That said, most of my classmates ended up in industry and are doing well in their fields, so it’s certainly flexible enough to help you be successful in whatever you want to do after graduation.

In addition to your coursework, they do an excellent job of helping students with internships. As I said, I was a bit late on my internship, but there were many of my classmates who knew they wanted to go into industry after graduating. The department helped them get year-long internships at some of the large companies in the area like Country Financial and State Farm. With these internships under their belt, they were able to land excellent jobs after graduation.

Additionally, ISU has made a massive investment into communication technology. They’ve built an entire room dedicated to social media listening and measurement. It’s essentially a room with about 10-15 TVs that are all running social media listening software. You can use it for research in your classes, and when there are political debates, they typically have events using the technology. It’s a really unique learning opportunity for someone who wants to get involved in that type of work.

Finally, if you’re someone who missed out on studying abroad while you were an undergraduate student, this may be the time to do it. Almost every summer, graduate students are able to study abroad in Paris at a school called Novancia. I did this between my first and second year of graduate school. After I completed my studies, I spent a few weeks backpacking. It’s not for everyone, but if it’s something that you’re interested in, I’m not sure there’s a lot of programs that offer it.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please describe your experience completing your thesis? What was your primary research inquiry, and how did you decide upon it? Could you describe the process you undertook to research your topic and form your final conclusions? What advice do you have for students in terms of completing their thesis (i.e. determining a research topic of appropriate scope, conducting thorough research and analysis, and crafting a strong presentation, etc.)?

[Caleb Malik] I had a wonderful experience completing my thesis, which had a quantitative focus. I basically had a moment while reading about French and Raven’s bases of power and stopped to think about referent power as liking. With that in mind, I reflected on liking as an interpersonal communication construct. So thinking about how self-disclosure facilitates liking in interpersonal relationships, I made the connection that self-disclosure could be the key to establishing referent power — an important form of power in the supervisor-subordinate relationship. This lead to a guiding research question: What type of self-disclosure leads to liking in the supervisor subordinate relationship? To answer this question, I turned to the literature and examined the necessary areas of previous research, including leader member exchange theory, self-disclosure, relational leadership styles, and French and Raven’s bases of power. This helped me develop a series of hypotheses, which I tested using a hierarchical regression analysis. The survey process also involved developing my own scale and running a pretest on it, which was a good learning experience as well.

Ultimately, I had a public, oral defense of my thesis, which is the standard for the ISU program. It’s a little nerve wracking, but most of the time people don’t come to your defense. Usually it’s just your committee and maybe a few friends. It really shouldn’t cause nervousness, because if you did it right, you already know your committee has seen your final draft and approves of your work. Plus, you wrote it, so you know the topic better than anyone. That said, I’d advise students be prepared to answer general questions about the topic of their study. To illustrate, in my case, I got general questions about leadership that were intended to probe my understanding of foundational research used to assemble my study.

There are a few other pieces of advice I would give students wanting to complete a thesis:

First, start as early as possible, especially if you’re conducting a study with surveys or interviews. Getting people to participate can be difficult and you don’t want to place your graduation date at the feet of participants.

Second, and most importantly, give a lot of thought to who you select for your committee. You’re building a team, and you want to think about the skills and knowledge they are bringing to the table, and how they’ll interact as a group. In my situation, I had three committee members. One was the expert on self-disclosure and quantitative research methods, another was a leadership expert, and my third member had experience in leadership and quantitative research. It also helped that I had prior relationships and knew that I got along well with them on a personal level. It cannot be overstated — you need to give a lot of thought to who you want on your committee.

Third, pick a topic you are interested in. You’re going to spend a lot of time on the topic, so don’t waste your time and hours on research you don’t find interesting. It’s also going to be challenging to succeed with a project and have continued dedication to a project that you don’t enjoy.

Fourth, and finally, you need to get it done. It’s an obvious statement, but some of the best advice I got from a professor was, “you’re not trying to create the overarching, all-encompassing theory of communication. You’re not expected to alter the field. Write your study, get it done, move on to the next project. You’re not writing a theory. Research is about theory building, taking small steps forward and progressing the field.” For me, this helped take a weight off my back. It helped me realize that it was just one study and not the defining factor of a career, and that’s the pressure a lot of people put on themselves.

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

[Caleb Malik] For me there were two sides to my experience in the program. There was the teaching assistantship, and there was the actual coursework.

In terms of the assistantship, I learned a lot about leadership and a lot about teaching. ISU’s program has the top training program in the country for graduate communication instructors, so off the bat I felt comfortable teaching in the classroom. With support throughout the first year of teaching, it’s a skill I learned to excel at. In the second year, I moved into a leadership role, helping to plan and lead the training for incoming graduate instructors. This was a leadership role that I served in throughout the second year, which included setting teaching schedules, assisting first-year instructors and supervising plagiarism cases. As a professional, this experience has set me up for success. I’ve taught at a community college in my free time, and I’ve also been able to use instructional tactics as I educate my clients about different aspects of digital or content marketing. More generally, the leadership skills I gained as a teacher and supervisor have translated into the workplace well.

From a coursework perspective, there were three major skills I took away from the program. First, I learned how to collect and interpret data well. This is hugely helpful in a career like digital marketing where so much is driven by data. Second, I became a much better writer, a skill that I put to use every day in my career, whether that be in emails or in content I write for Fortune 500 companies. Third, and finally, I see everything now through a communicative lens. This helps me develop corporate messaging better, communicate with my coworkers and clients better, and even communicate with friends and family better.

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

[Caleb Malik] I’d tell them to have fun. It’s two fantastic years. I was able to teach students, I was learning new information and I was surrounded by a lot of smart people. Not only that, but that environment bred friendships with likeminded people who shared my academic interests — we’d talk about communication theory for fun! I’d also tell prospective students not to stress out too much about their courses. There always ends up being enough time to finish the reading or finish the project. Once you graduate, if you go into industry, you don’t get to sit around reading, learning and writing studies anymore. It’s a unique moment in life when that’s your focus, so enjoy it.

Likewise, my advice to people who are considering a master’s in communication is that you have to want to do those things. If you’re someone who hates studying, or who doesn’t enjoy reading, you’re going to have a hard time in the program. You can graduate, but it’s going to be a difficult two years.

As I mentioned earlier, I’d also recommend students have an idea of what they want to accomplish in a program (i.e., PhD vs. Industry) and that should be coupled with a backup plan. That’s especially true if you want to get a PhD. You may change your mind like I did, or you might not get accepted into a program, and you have to be ready for that.

I’d also recommend students get a second job. I know that sounds crazy if you are taking classes and you have an assistantship, but you’ll be glad you did. I didn’t, and while the assistantship covers tuition and comes with a stipend, it didn’t cover all my expenses and I ended up taking out student loans. My roommate, on the other hand, worked at the local Y in the mornings before teaching or going to class. When it wasn’t busy he could get reading done and, when he graduated, he was in a better financial position than someone like myself who didn’t get a part-time job.

My final recommendation would be to go to ISU. I think it’s obvious by now, but I’m a huge fan of the program. Regardless of the research area, it felt like we had a professor who really knew their stuff — with many being recognized as the leader in their area of research. Beyond that, our professors were all really nice people. They treated students with respect, and they treated each other with respect. Unfortunately, that’s not something that you’re going to find at every program.

Thank you, Mr. Malik, for your excellent insights on Illinois State University’s Master’s Degree in Communication program!