About Nilam Patel: Nilam Patel is an Adjunct Instructor of Speech and Communication Studies, who currently teaches a variety of courses at multiple colleges, universities, and high schools. This includes both face-to-face and online courses in Public Speaking, Interpersonal Communication, and Business and Professional Communication, as well as dual-enrollment classes for high school students. Prior to completing her master’s and becoming a teacher, Ms. Patel worked in a university admissions office, and as a rate analyst for an electric and natural gas utility company.
Ms. Patel holds a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Rice University in Houston, Texas. She completed her master’s in 2018, graduating from the online Master of Arts in Communication Studies program at Sam Houston State University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Nilam Patel] I have a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Rice University. Professionally, prior to completing my master’s degree, I held roles in the admissions office of a large university and as a rate analyst for an electric and natural gas utility company. Although neither of those roles were in the communication field, communication was a critical component of both roles. As a representative of my university’s admissions department, I was required to interface with a wide range of audiences, including other departments at the university, current and prospective students, parents, my colleagues, and even individuals acting on behalf of elected officials. In my role as a rate analyst, I communicated with my team, individuals in different departments of my company, all levels of management, representatives from other companies, and representatives from the Public Utility Commission.
Currently, I am employed as an adjunct instructor of Speech and/or Communication Studies at multiple institutions of higher learning. These institutions include both two-year and four-year institutions. In addition, I teach dual-enrollment classes on high school campuses to students who are either enrolled in early college high school programs and who will graduate high school with their associate degrees, or who are simply taking some college classes while in high school. I teach classes such as Public Speaking, Interpersonal Communication, and Business and Professional Communication in both face-to face and online settings.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in communication, and why did you ultimately choose the online Master of Arts in Communication Studies program at Sam Houston State University (SHSU)?
[Nilam Patel] I decided to pursue a master’s degree in communication while I was still working full-time at the electric and gas utility. When I was in high school, I thought I would earn a PhD and both teach and do research at university level. Professionally, that did not end up being the path I pursued. While I was employed in a corporate setting, I found that I very much missed being in an academic setting. I ended up enrolling in an online class at my community college almost every semester, just because I missed being in school. I also remembered my desire to teach at the college level when I was younger, and I, therefore, decided academia was where I belonged. This led me to investigate graduate programs, as I knew I would need at least a master’s degree to teach at the college level.
Most people would have thought I would have pursued graduate studies in the same field as my undergraduate studies (or at least a field that was related), but I ended up pursuing graduate studies in a completely different field. The reason for this is that I still loved the objectivity and black and white nature of mathematics, but I missed the human component that is a fundamental part of the humanities and social sciences. Moreover, the school of life had, by that point, taught me the importance and value of strong communication skills. I had personally experienced the benefits and triumphs of being able to transform a bad situation with good communication, and I had also experienced the heartbreak of seeing situations deteriorate because of the lack of communication skills. I was fascinated by the role communication plays in the human experience and decided this was where I wanted to focus my research efforts; likewise, I concluded that, because communication skills are so important for so many aspects of our lives, there were few subjects I could teach that had as great of a potential to impact someone’s life as communication skills. This was, therefore, the material that I wanted to focus on teaching.
Although my long-term goal was and still is to earn a PhD, I decided that it was not the right time to pursue my PhD, as the lack of PhD programs close to home would most likely mean I would have to uproot my family. In addition, my children were on the cusp of becoming teenagers (they are now 13 and almost 15), and I wanted to ensure that my focus during their last few years at home was on them. I thought that the rigors of a PhD program would simply be more than I could handle with two almost-teenagers (or teenagers) at home. Being a poor or unsuccessful student was not an option for me, so I decided that the best plan was to complete my master’s degree, teach freshman/sophomore level classes until my children had both finished high school, then perhaps return to graduate school to earn my PhD.
When I was looking at master’s programs, I had three factors I was considering: (1) I was still working full-time, so I knew that between my job and caring for my children I could not enroll in a face-to-face program; that meant I needed an online program that would allow me to complete my school work at the time that was the most convenient for me; (2) I wanted a faculty that was active in research and publishing its research; I did not know if I would be able to juggle classes, work, my family, and research, but I wanted the option; and (3) I needed a program that was cost-effective; as such, I first looked at online programs at public schools within the State of Texas as I was currently a resident there. When I looked at the Master of Arts in Communication Studies at Sam Houston, I found the program satisfied all three of these needs, and it was also close enough (distance-wise) to my home that if I needed to make a trip to the school, it could be done as a day trip. I knew several people who completed degrees at Sam Houston, and I knew it was an excellent institution with a solid reputation in the State of Texas. In addition, when I looked at the MA curriculum, I could see that it was research and theory-focused with an emphasis on interpersonal communication, which is the field that I wanted to focus on, so it seemed like the perfect match to my needs.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on your experience in SHSU’s online Master of Arts in Communication Studies program? How is the program structured? Were courses asynchronous, synchronous, or a combination of both? Did the school’s online platform enable you to interact with faculty members and classmates?
[Nilam Patel] The program is a 36-hour, non-thesis program. There are a set of required courses, such as statistics and research methods that all students must take. The structure of each individual course varies, but I found that, with the exception of research methods and statistics, each professor tended to structure all of their classes in a similar way. For example, one professor had journal articles for the students to read every week with one or two students assigned to be the “presenters” each week. They posted an outline of each article and several discussion questions, and every student was then required to post a response to at least one of the discussion questions and one or two responses to other students. Another professor had different assignments for each week of study including some combination of free response questions, discussion questions, and papers responding to one or more research articles. Some professors had midterm and/or final exams, and some did not. A research paper was required for almost every class.
Although every class I took was completely asynchronous, the professors structured the courses in such a way as to promote interaction with both them and other students. I made friends in my classes, some of which I suspect will be my friends for life. I consider many of my professors to be mentors, and I know they are always available if I need help. That being said, I believe this was the case for me because I made an effort to reach out to people and get to know them outside of the classroom. When I noticed another student posting something I thought was especially insightful on the discussion board, I emailed that student to introduce myself, much like I would if we were in a face-to-face class together. We eventually exchanged cell phone numbers and would communicate with each other about various topics—both those that pertained to school and those that did not. Saying I have friends I met in graduate school does not sound out of the ordinary but making friends like this in an online graduate program does. It may be more difficult, but it is completely possible to make connections and get to know others in the program if you choose to do so.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please describe your experience preparing for and taking your comprehensive capstone examination? What were the components of the exam, 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?
[Nilam Patel] To be honest, the comprehensive exam (comps) component of my program was, for me, the most intimidating part of the program. The idea of being tested over almost all of the classes I took as a graduate student just seemed overwhelming. Most students take their comps after completing 27 hours, but because I completed the program in five, as opposed to four semesters, I ended up taking my comps after I had completed 33 hours—this meant I was tested over 11 out of the 12 courses I took for my degree. My professors submitted one to three questions per course (more for courses like statistics and research methods, but with shorter, more straightforward answers) concerning the material covered in the courses I took from each of them, and the professors also determined how much time I was to receive for their questions.
I had the option to either travel to SHSU to complete my comps or to have them proctored locally, and I also had the option to either take the exams in a single eight-hour day or two four-hour days. I chose to take my exams over two days and have them proctored at a local library, as this kept me close to home.
To prepare for my exams, I reached out to all of my professors and requested study guides. Each professor sent me a list of questions and/or topics to study for my exams. I prepared responses to each question and then reviewed and re-reviewed each response. I prepared flash cards with definitions and key points that I needed to remember for my responses, and I would review them while I was sitting in the carpool line waiting to pick my son up from school. All total, I probably spent approximately a month preparing for my comps. There were times when I needed to reach out to a faculty member for assistance or support during this process; for example, I found that I was missing some outlines or articles from previous classes, so I had to ask the instructors if I could get access to the archived BlackBoard (the learning management system used at SHSU) sites for those courses, and there was one topic that I was confused by, so I reached out to the professor for assistance. The faculty was always extremely responsive to my questions.
I found that by following this process, I was well prepared for my exams, and I was able to answer every question thoroughly and completely. I received a phone call from the graduate advisor telling me that I passed my exam just over a week after I finished my comps. I won’t say the process of preparing for my exams was easy, but with hard work and planning, it was completely doable.
If I were advising students who were preparing to take their comps, I would offer the following suggestions: (1) start early; (2) make a plan and map out exactly what you are going to do (I was preparing during the 2018 Olympics, so my children and I would sit down in the evenings to watch the Olympics on television, and I had my computer and study materials with me so that I could study while we had family time in the evenings); (3) do not be afraid of asking the faculty for help—SHSU has an amazing faculty, and they love to help their students, so be sure to take full advantage of this resource; (4) save every outline, article, and any other materials used in your classes. Finally, I would tell future students to not worry too much about the exams—as long as they do their part and prepare for the exams, they should do fine.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from SHSU’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Nilam Patel] The program prepared me for my future in teaching in so many ways. First, I left SHSU with a strong network of connections with both faculty and other students. I know that I only need to pick up my phone or send an email if I am struggling as a teacher or if I simply have a question that I need answered. I have not commenced any research studies, but it is on my to-do list to explore opportunities to participate in research. When I am ready to do that, the first people I will contact to help me as mentors will be my graduate professors.
Concerning the formal curriculum, I cover many of the topics I studied in my graduate courses. For example, in my course in Interpersonal Communication, the topics I cover include conflict, sex and gender, culture, and family communication. All of these topics were foci of my graduate studies; thus, when I walk into my classroom, I know I have the knowledge I need to teach my students.
Another experience that I found to be invaluable was spending two years as a graduate assistant. GAs work closely with a faculty member, so this is an opportunity to learn directly from one professor. I worked with two professors as their graduate assistant during my time in the MA program, and I primarily assisted faculty by grading their papers and working with some of their students. With one faculty member, I primarily graded essays, and with the other, I graded all of the student’s assignments in an online undergraduate class. In both of these experiences, I was able to receive feedback from the professor concerning my grading, feedback, and whether I was expecting too little or too much from the students. I had no idea how difficult it was to grade student essays in a fair and consistent manner until I graded my first essays. I suspect I would have struggled much more in my first semester of teaching if I had not had this experience.
Overall, I feel as though my graduate experience at SHSU left me well prepared to manage my own classroom and develop coursework for students that was both appropriate and challenging. Moreover, I feel that my experiences at SHSU gave me the knowledge and experience I needed to help students be successful in the classroom, which at the end of the day is why I do what I do.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting Sam Houston State University’s online MA in Communication Studies 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 SHSU or another university?
[Nilam Patel] I would tell new graduate students that, as is often the case with educational endeavors, you will get as much out of the program as you put into it. SHSU has some amazing opportunities for graduate students outside of the classroom and an amazing faculty. One opportunity, which I discussed at length above, and which I believe is especially beneficial for students like me who plan to go into teaching, is to work as a graduate assistant. My time as a GA taught me skills that are critical for an instructor to possess, and it provided me with opportunities to learn that I would not have received in any other part of my degree program. I still reach out to former professors from time to time when I need advice or input concerning student issues.
Secondly, I would tell every student to never be afraid to reach out to the faculty. I have observed that sometimes students who are struggling will wait until the end of the semester to reach out to their professors (if at all). This is a huge mistake! The faculty are there to help every student—not just those students who are succeeding in the program. In online programs, professors do not have the opportunity to speak to students in person; this means that oftentimes the only way professors know students are struggling or need help is if they reach out. I have seen professors bend over backwards to help their students, but they cannot help anyone if they do not know a student needs help. In addition, if a student is not struggling, their professors still want to hear from them. I have emailed faculty to further discuss ideas brought up in class on multiple occasions. These are conversations that we would have after class or during office hours if the class was face-to-face, but since the class was online, those conversations took place over email.
Finally, I would say the following to students who are considering pursuing a MA in communication (or any field, for that matter): Think long and hard about your needs and priorities. This is a time when you need to be very honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. You may believe online programs are less challenging than face-to-face programs—this is a misconception! I have found that many online classes are actually more difficult than their face-to-face counterparts. Although it is true that online programs are convenient and make higher education possible for many students who would not be able to complete a face-to-face program, online learning requires that you be disciplined and able to manage your time well so that you complete assignments on time and do not fall behind in classes. Online learning may not be the best fit for you if you struggle with procrastination and/or time management. However, if you know how to manage your time well, and if you desire to pursue your MA in Communication Studies, I would encourage you to go for it! There is never a better time than the present to begin working on building a better future for yourself, and Sam Houston State University is great place to consider if you decide an online MA program is the right fit for you! You will not find a better or more caring faculty or people who are more willing to help you anywhere else!
Thank you, Ms. Patel, for your excellent insights on Sam Houston State University’s online Master of Arts in Communication Studies program!