About Donovan Bisbee: Donovan Bisbee is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). He is currently on fellowship while he completes his dissertation, which deals with interbranch conflicts between presidents and the judiciary over constitutional authority. Over the course of his graduate studies, Mr. Bisbee has taught classes in a wide range of communication subjects, including visual communication, public speaking, business communication, persuasion, and more.
Mr. Bisbee holds a bachelor’s degree in Rhetoric and English from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He completed his master’s in 2014, graduating from the Master of Arts in Communication program at UIUC with a concentration in Rhetoric and Public Discourse and a certificate in Writing Studies.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Donovan Bisbee] I earned my undergraduate degree in English and Rhetoric (from a communication perspective) from Wabash College in 2012. I then completed my Master of Arts degree in Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 2014 before pursuing my doctoral degree in the same department. I am currently a Doctoral Candidate at UIUC. I have a fellowship from our graduate college for this academic year to allow me to complete my dissertation. I’m currently writing my dissertation and planning to finish by the end of summer 2019.
From the time I started my graduate program, I have been teaching undergraduate classes. I taught seven different undergraduate classes over my six years as an MA and PhD student, most of that time being split between the introductory speaking and writing class and an advanced visual communication class. Most MA students start off teaching a public speaking course, and I spent the two years of my MA teaching oral and written communication to first-year undergraduate students. I later had the opportunity to work in administration for that course, serving as a “Peer Leader” who helped to mentor new instructors, develop instructional materials, and run the teaching orientation. I have taught classes focused on public speaking, business communication, persuasion, visual communication, and a course on communication and law that I designed myself!
That teaching experience and my time at Illinois led me to a part-time position with UIUC’s teaching center, the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL). I served as one of four graduate affiliates for CITL from 2016 to 2018. While working on my degree, I helped CITL by designing and offering teaching workshops, observing and consulting with graduate instructors, and assisting with the campus-wide teaching orientation, where we prepared over seven hundred new teachers each year!
[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?
[Donovan Bisbee] On the second week of our capstone seminar my senior year, my advisor recommended that I consider graduate school. I knew next to nothing about how graduate study worked, but with the help of my advisor and a few other faculty members, I started applying to programs that had a focus in rhetoric or public discourse. I knew I wanted to continue my education and to teach at the college level, so I looked for programs that offered compelling classes, had great teachers, and provided teaching experience. I wanted to improve my writing and my knowledge of communication broadly while using the skills and concepts I had learned as an undergraduate studying rhetoric. That helped me narrow it down to a manageable number of programs, including Illinois. The choice got easier the more I learned about UIUC. My undergraduate college had a rhetoric lecture each year where a visiting scholar gave the keynote, and during my senior year the speaker was a faculty member at Illinois! They gave an incredible lecture, and I remember thinking during the talk that I wanted to learn from someone like that. That professor is now my advisor.
I was also drawn to UIUC because of their broad focus across methods and topics. Some programs that I looked at focused exclusively on one kind of approach, such as quantitative methods, or only emphasized a certain area of communication, such as rhetoric or health communication. While those are excellent programs and valuable approaches, I was interested in a wider view of communication. At Illinois, students are encouraged to cast a wide net, and this breadth of knowledge was very appealing to me. I also learned that I would be able to start teaching in my first semester—with help and training, of course.
In addition, UIUC’s “fly-up” process for MA students also appealed to me. At 22 years old, I was a little skittish about committing to a six-year program and the career path of being an academic. Many programs don’t even offer a separate MA, you just enter as a Doctoral student who earns an MA somewhere along the way. At Illinois, students apply separately to the MA program, and you earn the degree within two years. Students interested in the PhD can then “fly-up” by applying to be admitted for doctoral study. Illinois offered me a broad set of compelling classes from dynamic teachers, the chance to teach undergraduates from day one, and the opportunity to earn a degree before committing to earning a PhD. That made it an easy decision.
[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?
[Donovan Bisbee] UIUC’s program is special precisely because it is so open. There is only one required class, and that is “Introduction to Graduate Studies,” a one-credit class during the fall semester for all new graduate students. It focuses on professionalization and helping students adjust to life as a grad student. Other than that, students must complete 32 hours of credit, of which eight can be from courses outside the department. Since each course is typically four credit hours, a normal MA student would take three courses a semester for 12 hours for a total of 24 hours in a normal academic year. Students have no problem reaching the 32 hours in the normal two-year time frame, and some students even choose to graduate early. There is a “research methods” course that gives an overview of most approaches to communication research, and first-year students typically take this class. Other than that, students choose from the list of courses that seem relevant and interesting. This fall, for example, students can choose from more than 15 different options. A notable aspect of the program is that graduate students take both graduate seminars and “bridge” classes. The “bridge” classes are taken by both advanced undergraduates and graduate students. This allows students to get a foundational understanding of what might be a new topic to them before beginning a more advanced seminar.
The skills and strategies vary by course and the areas of the discipline, but there is consistent emphasis on clear writing, careful analysis, and original thought. Almost every course ends with some form of final paper, typically an original research paper using some concepts from the course or working with topics from the course. Among other topics, I wrote seminar papers on Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats, Andrew Jackson’s veto of the National Bank, Roe v. Wade, and the Advertising Council. To write a strong seminar paper, you must conduct extensive secondary research and familiarize yourself with the scholarly conversations around your method and your subject. You also must conduct original research—whether that’s textual analysis, lab experiments, focus groups, or interviews. Most importantly, you must articulate your findings in a clear and meaningful way to a scholarly audience. The classes emphasize these skills, and to succeed in the capstone seminar papers, you have to put them to use!
[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?
[Donovan Bisbee] The last requirement for graduation is the comprehensive examination—which almost everyone calls “comps.” Most students take these in the early spring of their second year. Comps can feel stressful, but they were an excellent way to review and synthesize what I had learned. After reviewing all the courses I had taken, my advisor and I selected the six that I wished to write on for my comps. I then reached out to each of the faculty members for those courses and arranged for them to write a question for me. Most questions were tailored to specific questions or topics I had been drawn to or found compelling in the class. Some faculty will provide more information than others, but I was given a clear idea of the topics/issues that each question would deal with. My advisor then looked at the six questions and formulated an overarching seventh question that focused on my course of study overall.
With my questions set, I then had several months to prepare. I reviewed notes and readings for each class, outlined answers and ideas for each question, and even practiced writing one or two of them. Finally, I took my exams over a two-day period in early January 2014. I was given a question, loaned a laptop, and given an hour to write. After that, I went back and got the next question. I did four questions the first day and three questions the next day. There was no oral defense.
My advice for students preparing for this comprehensive exam would be to set aside dedicated time to review and work on the questions without letting it consume all your time. Take good notes throughout your seminars and read and annotate carefully. These will be invaluable when you’re trying to remember things from over a year ago.
[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?
[Donovan Bisbee] As I mentioned earlier, I started graduate school without knowing for sure whether I wanted to be a career academic or not. In my first two years, I became a better writer, a clearer thinker, and a better speaker. Most importantly, I learned how to approach a topic or issue, contextualize it, apply different theories to it, and articulate a clear argument for how to proceed. Had I left with my MA, these skills would have been incredibly valuable in a variety of professional contexts. I’ve seen that first hand, as many of my friends and colleagues have put these skills to work in fields like technology, education, and politics.
Illinois has been an incredible launching pad for my own career path. I hope to begin a tenure track job next fall as an assistant professor. The MA program taught me how to teach, write, and research—the core elements of being an academic. It also showed me what that career looks like and what is necessary to pursue it. My colleagues also make me a better teacher and writer, and those relationships will continue to pay dividends even after we graduate.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting the MA in Communication program at the University of Illinois 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?
[Donovan Bisbee] For students considering the MA in Communication at the University of Illinois, I would recommend being open to new experiences and new ideas. Few people end up studying exactly what they put in their statement of purpose, and that can be a good thing. The breadth and freedom of the program is rare, so take advantage of it by looking widely before settling on what you are going to study. One of my former colleagues came to Illinois to study organizational communication and risk management. By mistake, this person wandered into a seminar on rhetorical criticism instead during their first semester. They are now a tenure-track faculty member at a college where they specialize in rhetoric.
For all students, I would recommend figuring out a system for taking good notes, organizing them, and annotating your readings. Take classes and your work in them seriously. If you get to teach, take your teaching seriously and treat your students with respect and understanding. Also, and for me this is the most important, ask about funding and placement. Illinois offers a list of where all its recent MA and PhD graduates are currently and what they are doing. Seeing that list helped me understand what the possibilities were. Ask the programs you are looking at about what their alums do. Related to that, ask pointed questions about the funding structure. I was lucky because Illinois offers stipends and tuition waivers as well as summer funding. Most MA programs provide tuition waivers and stipends, but get the specifics on how it works and what your costs will be. Getting an undergraduate degree is expensive enough, so avoid more debt if you can. Finally, enjoy it and find your social support group. I would not have made it through my MA without my colleagues. Yours will help you survive, grow, and succeed.
Thank you, Mr. Bisbee, for your excellent insights on the University of Illinois’ Master of Arts in Communication program!