About Montana Smith: Montana Smith is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Communication Studies at Louisiana State University with a focus on Performance Studies. She also serves at the Instructor of Record for the school’s Introduction to Performing Literature and Public Speaking courses. In her spare time, Ms. Smith likes to teach and take dance classes, read true crime novels, and spend time with her partner, Nate, and their cat, Fallon.
Ms. Smith earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa in 2014, where she majored in Communication Studies with an emphasis in Interpersonal Communication. She completed her master’s at UNI as well, graduating from their Master of Arts in Communication Studies program in 2016 and specializing in Communication Education.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Montana Smith] I earned my undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Northern Iowa in 2014 and 2016, respectively. My undergraduate degree was in Communication Studies with an emphasis in Interpersonal Communication, and my master’s degree was in Communication Education. Currently, I am pursuing my Ph.D. in Communication Studies with an emphasis in Performance Studies at Louisiana State University. In this position, I am the instructor of record for our Introduction to Performing Literature course as well as our Public Speaking course. I am entering my third year of my doctoral degree, so I have completed all coursework and am in the middle of taking, and defending, my general comprehensive exams. Once that step is completed, I can then begin work on my dissertation project.
During my master’s and Ph.D. degrees, I have attended various conferences to share my work with those under similar sub-areas and disciplines within Communication Studies. My first conference was the Southern States Communication Association (SSCA) during my second year of my master’s degree. The paper I submitted to this conference was chosen to be on the Top Student Paper Panel of the Kenneth Burke Society. In my second year of my Ph.D., I won the Top Student Paper in the Gender Division at SSCA and was on the Top Student Performance Panel of the Performance Studies Division. I have attended our National Communication Association (NCA) conference for the last three years, and have done multiple presentations within the Performance Studies Division and Ethnography Division. I have also volunteered as a student worker to help run registration for NCA and worked at the Graduate Student Fair they have every 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 Studies program at the University of Northern Iowa?
[Montana Smith] I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Communication Studies because I really enjoyed my Communication classes during my undergraduate degree. When I applied for the master’s program at UNI, I was interested in learning more about Organizational Communication. Thus, this was my initial emphasis area upon entering the program. I wanted to work in Human Resources or Recruitment, and thought a background in Organizational Communication would give me a variety of skills to be successful in this career path. I knew I would learn about different leadership styles, work place conflict, different communication styles within organizations based off gender, race, sexuality, religion, and tips on offering trainings related to workplace communication to organizations themselves. UNI’s program attracted me for this career path because they offered Organizational Communication classes, but also had classes in Public Relations, Interpersonal Communication, and Communication Pedagogy, which offered a well-rounded background to take with me into the workforce.
After my first semester, however, I switched my emphasis area to Communication Education. One awesome thing about UNI’s master’s program is the opportunity to potentially teach while you are earning your degree. UNI offers a competitive assistantship program for their master’s students. Those who receive an assistantship are able to teach an entry-level Communication course and receive a stipend for their work while also earning their degree. After teaching the Oral Communication course, I realized how much I like teaching and sharing the theories and ideas of Communication Studies to undergraduate students. I considered the possibility of pursuing a doctoral degree in order to become a Professor of Communication Studies.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is UNI’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?
[Montana Smith] Graduate students are required to take the Introduction to Graduate Studies course their first semester. After that, UNI has a variety of program options. They offer pathways including Public Relations, Organizational Communication, Rhetoric, and Communication Education/Pedagogy. There is a variety of graduate faculty present within the department with backgrounds in Organizational Communication, Performance Studies, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Gender and Communication, and Quantitative, Qualitative, Rhetorical, and Performance methods. Students are required to complete either a Thesis or Research Paper depending on their interests moving forward (e.g., I did a thesis option knowing I would be applying for doctoral programs) and are required to complete two comprehensive exams: one in theory and one in method.
One reason I loved UNI’s program so much is because the faculty allow you to cater research and course assignments to your interests. They are open to making the classes fit you as much as possible. For example, in my Gender and Communication seminar we were allowed a variety of final project options, including a rhetorical analysis paper, an extended literature review paper, or a syllabus and class structure outline based on Gender and Communication. The faculty realizes that students do not have the same background or interests moving forward and take that into account. I was able to apply my own personal skills to my assignments, which made the courses more engaging and meaningful.
[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.)?
[Montana Smith] The thesis is an exciting and intimidating experience. My primary research question was about adoption narratives and how these stories shaped an adoptee’s self-concept. My methods of inquiry were qualitative and performative in nature. As an adoptee myself, I have always been interested in the communication process within non-nuclear families. I also value the use of storytelling as a rich and interesting site for knowledge generation. Because I had a background interest in the topic, the inception of my thesis project began in my Introduction to Graduate Studies class. Our professor asked us to complete an extended literature review on a Communication topic of interest, so I dove into a plethora of adoptive family communication research. I continued to expand my research of this topic throughout all of my courses I took at UNI to get a well-rounded background.
At the end of my first year, I asked Dr. Danielle McGeough to be my advisor. I knew she had a background in storytelling and family communication and I had a great working relationship with her in class. For your thesis, you must have three professors serve on your committee. So, I proceeded to ask two more professors who I knew had an interest in my topic and that I trusted to help me shape my research. My committee, especially my advisor, read through multiple drafts of each chapter of my thesis and offered areas for expansion and critique. This allowed me to specify my ideas further and to my find where I fit into Communication Studies research as a whole. I was able to find my place and where I wanted to take my research in the future.
After you complete the thesis document, you must orally defend your thesis to your committee. This experience made me a bit anxious leading up to the day, but my committee used this time as a way for me to further explain my scholarly ideas, offer clarifications on concepts, and become, in essence, a colleague rather than a student. My advice to students considering a thesis track is to start looking for your topic early. Consider each class paper and project a potential research option to expand upon. Definitely find something you are invested in and find interesting. It makes the process so much more rewarding.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from UNI’s MA in Communication Studies program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Montana Smith] UNI offers courses in a variety of sub disciplines. The classes that I found most useful in my doctoral work and teaching have been Communication Theory, Communication Education, and Gender and Communication. Theory and Pedagogy offered me skills and material to apply both to my doctoral classes and my own classes that I teach, such as having a general background in all approaches in Communication Studies and being able to interact with a variety of students with different backgrounds, majors, and learning styles. I valued my Gender and Communication course because it not only gave me a critical approach to gender within a variety of institutions, but also allowed me to apply this knowledge to all aspects of my life. This class made me a well-rounded and better human being.
For those pursuing a master’s degree on a nonacademic track, I believe the most useful classes for me were Communication Education, Organizational Communication, and Performance and Culture. These courses introduce concepts connected to listening, critical pedagogy, leadership, workplace conflict, performance of everyday life, and ethnocentrism. Having a background in these areas will give you skills to take into the workforce that will make you a better coworker, manager, employee, parent, student, and person.
Although not a pathway offered in the master’s program at UNI, they do have many undergraduate courses geared towards communication technology. There are a variety of professors and instructors within the department specialized in technology and media who are always willing to meet with graduate students to discuss material and concepts related to this latest trend in communication research.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting the Master of Arts in Communication Studies program at the University of Northern Iowa? More broadly, what advice would you give students who are either considering or starting a master’s in communication program, whether it be at UNI or another university?
[Montana Smith] My advice to any student looking to pursue a Master of Arts in Communication Studies is as follows: find your fit. I gained the most from my master’s program at UNI because it fit my interests, provided me an opportunity to work with faculty as a research assistant, and even allowed me to teach my own course. Many master’s programs offer the same experiences, so you should find the place that will help you get the most out of your education.
I would also research what type of program you are considering. Would you be better suited at a terminal master’s program or a program that offers master’s and doctoral degrees? I enjoyed UNI because it was a terminal master’s program, meaning the master’s students were the only graduate students within the department. This allowed me more one-on-one time with professors and my advisor, and gave me an opportunity to lead my very own course in my first year there. In a program that offers both master’s and Ph.D.’s, there are more graduate students present within the department, however, you get the experience of working among more seasoned graduate students, which benefits your education and time within the program. You may also get the opportunity to start out as a teaching assistant to a faculty member within the department and eventually teach your own course. That is to say, each program is different. Make sure you do your research prior to the application process. Email graduate students within the programs you are considering. Their emails are usually posted to a department website. Use the resources already in place for you. You do not have to navigate the experience alone!
Thank you, Ms. Smith, for your excellent insights on the University of Northern Iowa’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program!