About Katie Bruner: Katie Bruner is a Ph.D. Student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is pursuing her doctorate in Speech Communication and Rhetoric. In addition to serving as a Research Assistant in the Department of Communication, Ms. Bruner also teaches courses in Visual Politics and Public Speaking. She intends to stay in academia after earning her doctorate and eventually become a Professor of Communication and Rhetoric.
Ms. Bruner holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication with a minor in English from Texas A&M University. In 2015, she completed her master’s through the Master of Arts in Communication program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Katie Bruner] My undergraduate degree is from Texas A&M University, where I majored in Communication and minored in English. My Master’s and Ph.D. are both from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In addition to my work in the Department of Communication, I have taken coursework in art history, media, and science/technology studies, and am pursuing a graduate minor in Cinema Studies. My professional goals are to stay in academia as a professor of Communication/Rhetoric, with a focus on the history of visual media and technology.
I started graduate school right after my undergrad, and so my professional experience has coincided with my education. While in school, I have worked on communication-related projects for nonprofits, student and faculty organizations, and university projects. Communication is a field of study that has tremendous breadth; this has meant that I have felt empowered to apply my knowledge to a variety of contexts.
[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?
[Katie Bruner] I enjoyed my undergraduate coursework in both Communication and English tremendously, and I was fortunate to have faculty who encouraged me to pursue graduate study. However, the idea of narrowing my focus was intimidating at that time in my education. I didn’t want to get pinned down and limit my professional options. Ultimately, a graduate degree in Communication appealed to my desire for flexibility and intellectual freedom.
I applied to Illinois because it was a top-ranked program across the field of Communication. The faculty and students were working on many different approaches to the study of Communication, and even those in rhetoric (my subfield) represented different types of research and teaching. As an applicant, I felt secure knowing that I would get exposure to the diversity of the discipline and have the option to focus on the particular topics that interested me.
I ended up choosing Illinois because it is a generous and supportive program, both structurally and culturally. The program is designed to support students in their own professional goals, rather than having all graduate experiences be the same. The faculty and students are invested in each other’s work and treat each other with great respect. I was excited that as a student I would have ownership over my degree, but I would also have a strong community of colleagues and teachers.
[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?
[Katie Bruner] The program is 32-credit hours, and the selection of courses is strongly tied to the student and their advisor. A typical student will work closely with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) during her first semester, and then select a faculty advisor for the future of her program. There are no required courses, so students are free to customize their program of study under the guidance of their advisor.
Illinois regularly has graduate seminars offered in Rhetoric, Interpersonal Communication, Health Communication, Communication Technology, and Organizational Communication. Students also take methods courses both in the department and across campus for topics such as computational analysis, ethnography, historiography, statistics, and digital humanities.
My master’s coursework focused on rhetorical criticism and historical research, so I learned how to review literature, closely read a text, contextualize rhetorical action, and write a thorough and organized essay. My seminars almost always concluded with a seminar paper, where I was able to demonstrate my engagement with course material and refine these skills. I also had opportunities to assist faculty with their research, where I could be exposed to elements of the research and publication process that I would need to understand once I began my own research in my doctoral program.
[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?
[Katie Bruner] The comprehensive examination process at Illinois involves a written examination that is prepared by your advisor and corresponds to your coursework. So I met with my advisor and we discussed my progress in the program and my goals for the future. From there, my advisor and examination committee (other faculty members I had studied with) composed the examination. The exam consisted of seven questions, which I answered in written form over two days, taking a maximum of one hour on each response.
Because the exam was based on my coursework, I ended up reviewing much of the content of my master’s program to prepare for it. This allowed me to reflect on the skills, theories, and topics that I had found most valuable or relevant to my professional goals. However, the time limitation forced me to prioritize the most relevant information needed to respond to the question. Thus, the examination required a high level of synthesis, organization, and clear presentation of complex information; these are exactly the skills that a graduate degree in Communication should instill in a student. The comprehensive examination was a challenging experience, but it really made me aware of how much I had learned during my master’s program.
[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?
[Katie Bruner] The skills I use most in my research and teaching involve historical methodologies – I work to understand what social, political, and cultural factors help me understand communication phenomenon at particular moments in time. In my teaching, I seek to develop those same skills in my students. We practice identifying the goals and motivations of speakers/groups, placing them in a historical context, and using concepts from rhetorical studies to identify the methods of persuasion and influence at work in that example. This is a practice both in intellectually rigorous analysis, but also in empathy. Communication helps students recognize and appreciate the different motives and expectations people may have when they interact with others.
Teaching itself is also a formative component of my graduate education. I have learned how to develop learning objectives, discern the needs of my students, communicate complex ideas without jargon, and evaluate student progress. Illinois values teaching, and so there were many resources for me to learn and grow as a teacher as well as a student.
While I primarily study historical phenomena, my coursework at Illinois also equipped me to react to contemporary communication as well. My training as a rhetorical critic has allowed me to understand what motivates technological or political change, and how different communities with different goals each play a unique role in public life. Especially in a moment where communication norms and technologies seem to be shifting all the time, my MA program has prepared me to see the historical antecedents of emergent trends.
[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?
[Katie Bruner] I would encourage incoming students to follow their curiosities. There is no substitute for the kind of motivation and sincerity that comes from finding topics that you genuinely find fascinating. You won’t have to manufacture a justification for why others should care about your topic, and you’ll be more likely to invest the time and energy needed to do good work. Plus, it makes your graduate program way more fun!
I would also encourage students to remember that you do not have to know exactly what you are going to do with your degree when you begin. There are so many avenues for using a Master’s Degree in Communication, and there is not one definition of success. My experience at Illinois has shown me how much Communication training can contribute to nearly every field of study. So no matter what interests you, Communication can help you understand and navigate it with more nuance, precision, and insight.
Thank you, Ms. Bruner, for your excellent insights on the University of Illinois’ Master of Arts in Communication program!