About David Tokarz: David Tokarz is a Ph.D. Candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has taught a wide range of courses at the university, including Public Speaking, Visual Politics, Health Communication, and Oral and Written Communication, and been recognized with the University of Illinois Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by Graduate Teaching Assistants.

Mr. Tokarz earned a bachelor’s degree in Communication and Political Science from Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He completed his master’s in 2013, graduating from the Master of Arts in Communication program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Interview Questions

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

[David Tokarz] I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Communication and Political Science from Wake Forest University in 2011. Originally, my plan was to go into law school and practice criminal law, but I fell in love with coaching debate while in college, and really liked research projects. So I cancelled my LSAT and took the GRE, and applied to the University of Illinois program.

Currently, I’m a PhD candidate at the University, working on my dissertation in rhetoric. The dissertation examines filibusters from 1937-1964 to examine how southern senators forestalled civil rights legislation. I plan on defending sometime this semester and taking a job at a university. Currently, I’m also teaching at the University of Illinois. This semester, I’m teaching our basic public speaking class, CMN 101, and next semester, I’ll be taking on a higher-level rhetoric course, Strategies of Persuasion.

I have been recognized by the University of Illinois as an outstanding teacher, winning the University of Illinois Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by Graduate Teaching Assistants. I also was recognized for my dissertation last year through a University of Illinois Graduate College Dissertation Completion Fellowship and two travel grants, one through my home department and one through the Graduate College.

[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 the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign?

[David Tokarz] I came to the University of Illinois because its reputation as a research institution. At Wake Forest, my professors taught me the basics of rhetorical criticism, and I loved doing it. I also fell in love with teaching, having coached debaters at a school in Winston Salem. Illinois offered me the opportunity to work with world-class faculty in my area of specialization, and instead of writing a thesis, the faculty emphasized research papers that could later go on to become publications. I was initially wary at the absence of a thesis option, but the Department of Communication’s emphasis on independent research from the seminar outward meant that I left my MA with a handful of projects that could go on to become conference papers or journal publications.

The U of I also offered teaching opportunities that I would not have earned at other universities. In the second year of my MA, for instance, I was asked to rewrite a large portion of the class materials for one of the basic courses. Other schools I showed interest in did not offer nearly as many teaching opportunities, and they certainly did not allow for the same sort of mobility that the U of I did. I knew that picking the University of Illinois would set me up for a strong candidacy into a PhD program, or at the very least give me the tools necessary to become an excellent teacher.

[MastersinCommunications.com] How is UIUC’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?

[David Tokarz] UIUC’s program is built around seminar work. Rather than a thesis option, MA students are placed in classes with PhD students and assigned research-article length papers and projects. For humanities students like me, this means writing drafts of single-authored papers that later turn into conference papers and publications, and for social scientists, it means inclusion on research projects at the MA level.

As a result, UIUC’s program is geared heavily toward those who want to stay in academia, or who want to leave and do research. That said, a lot of these skills are transferrable to other fields. We’re all required to take diverse classes, so despite my concentration being in rhetoric, I’ve taken media effects classes and have a conversational understanding of mass media studies. The emphasis on self-directed writing or collaboration on a research team also means that students leave prepared to direct projects on their own, and learn about effective team-building skills through work with faculty and graduate student colleagues. The end result of our program is practical experience; rather than having a thesis that might never get published, students have publishable work, have developed research skills, and have already immersed themselves in the field.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please describe your experiences 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?

[David Tokarz] UIUC has a thesis option, but students are dissuaded from taking it. Instead, we use a comprehensive exam process. The exam process consists of seven questions. Six of the questions are written based upon the seminars taken by the individual graduate student, and the seventh is a comprehensive question written by the student’s advisor. This means that the comprehensive exams are tailored directly to the coursework taken by the student, and because the questions are written by faculty that graduate students have worked closely with, they are often tailored directly to the student’s interests. For instance, four of my six questions, in addition to my advisor-written comprehensive question, concerned social movement rhetoric, my primary interest.

Most faculty offer graduate students the opportunity to review their questions beforehand. MA students are instructed to prepare for about two months, dedicating a week to writing each question and mastering the necessary material, and then a week for review of all the questions together. This sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but being able to strategize and revise answers means that students develop a working knowledge of theory as they draft, which becomes useful to take into PhD programs or the workforce.

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

[David Tokarz] The MA program’s courses are incredibly open-ended, and there is no real difference between what an MA student and a PhD student take. Illinois emphasizes course diversity; that is, if you go in expecting to be a rhetoric student, you’ll take lots of rhetoric courses, but you’ll also take ones in areas outside that might be related. I took mass media courses and critical media studies courses, for instance, because my advisor thought they might be helpful for my overall program. Likewise, a student who specializes in health or interpersonal likely works with organizational or communication and technology students.

The department’s focus on broadening students’ horizons leads to smarter graduate students who work in cross-disciplinary ways. Several of my rhetoric colleagues, for instance, draw upon organizational rhetoric in their work, and are fluent in both rhetorical and social-scientific methodologies. Likewise, what students learn in coursework extends outside the classroom, meaning that faculty connections often result in grant work and expanded research opportunities. Late in my MA, for instance, I helped write a grant for an interactive grammar program, which allowed me to learn about grant-writing from an experienced faculty member.

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

[David Tokarz] Keep an open mind. Several of my colleagues came in thinking they wanted to study in one area (media effects, for instance) and landed up switching focuses. My track has mostly stayed the same as I’ve moved into PhD work, but even then I draw from my experiences in media classes because the material we covered there has helped inform my work. Some of the most valuable courses I took during my MA were from other areas besides my own, and I still go back to that work as a PhD candidate.

On a related note, this means taking opportunities that come your way, even if you don’t think they’re want you want to do in the long-term, or they weren’t what you came to UIUC (or a different program) for. You never know when a class will turn into a research assistantship, or when teaching for a professor will lead to a job recommendation, or whether your work with your advisor leads to new skills.

Thank you, Mr. Tokarz, for your excellent insights on the University of Illinois’ Master of Arts in Communication program!